The most inspiring and informative part of the de Young’s new exhibit is not the admittedly awe-inspiring collection of dresses on display in the Herbst Exhibition Galleries, but the little screening room at the end, past the gift shop. Here, the committed fashion aficionado or art enthusiast can sit in a small, dimmed room and watch beautiful, grainy images of Oscar de la Renta tromping New York streets in a stylish trenchcoat or running with a mass of village children in his native Dominican Republic, all with a deep, accented voice-over by the man himself. After walking through the galleries, it’s an ethereal, almost eerie, experience to hear Mr. de la Renta talk about his inspiration and his reasons for creation.
In fact, if anyone ever had doubts about fashion being a true art form, a visit to Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective will almost certainly cure them of this notion. Passing through the rooms, organized by culture as well as aesthetic, it becomes clear that de la Renta pulls from the art-historical cannon the way that any modern artist might. In French room, de la Renta’s pastel and cloud-like creations fill the space like some kind of Rococo dream, complete with a screen of shifting images of the palace of Versailles. In the Middle Eastern room, the fabrics art dark and rich, edged with gold designs that call to mind the interiors of famous mosques, such as the Quran-scripted walls of the Dome of the Rock. The Russian corner displays de la Renta’s excellent and strategic use of fur, as well as his way with bridal gowns—eschewing the classic white for a dark burgundy and gold creation. Konstantin Makovsky’s 1889 painting The Russian Bride’s Attire is printed on the back wall in this corner, a well-placed compliment to de la Renta’s creations, highlighting the opulence of the Russian clothing tradition.
The audience also gets to see de la Renta evolve by the decade, from his classically-cut plaid playsuits of the 60’s, complete with matching hats, to his flowing creations of the 70’s that are able, somehow, to catch the light in just the right way. de la Renta explains in the aforementioned film that to him, more than the form of the dress, it’s the fabric that is important. This is never more clear than in the subtly shimmering kaftans of the 70’s section. Well into the 90's, de la Renta's leopard print dress for Hillary Clinton reminds us of the interesting, often questionable, fashions of the last decade of the 20th century.
The final room in the exhibition, and by far the most crowded one, holds de la Renta’s creations of recent years, including an entire section from the 2014 Met Ball. The familiar names of the wearers—Sarah Jessica Parker, Taylor Swift, Karlie Kloss, Nicki Minaj, Jessica Chastain, Rihanna—hold a certain charm for the younger crowd that has been drawn to the museum since the March opening of this exhibit. These dresses are fascinating in a new way, as they not only exhibit de la Renta’s talent, but also display the ability of a dress to represent a person, to serve as representation of the wearer’s marketed personality: Taylor Swift in a classically formed blush pink that recalls Jackie O, Nicki Minaj in a daring black and green number with a sheer top. For anyone who follows fashion, these dresses have been viewed before on laptop screens, on the first Monday in May of 2014, and seeing them in person is like sighting the celebrity herself, perhaps better.
One standout was a white column dress with a bodice made up of real feathers, dipped in gold. The image is haunting, and calls to mind the tragedy of Icarus, wings too close to the sun. One look is proof—Oscar de la Renta was not just a designer, he was an artist.
photographs by Anahita Far