‘High Style’ showcases French and American fashion 

click to enlarge Charles James’ magnificent "Clover Leaf" ball gown is a highlight of “High Style.” - COURTESY METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
  • Charles James’ magnificent "Clover Leaf" ball gown is a highlight of “High Style.”
From lavish gowns to little black dresses to practical sportswear to a creepy-crawly necklace, fashion is the subject of a comprehensive art show and chic adventure at the Legion of Honor.

“High Style” covers the evolution of modern women’s clothing design through displays of 65 dressed mannequins and 35 accessories from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dating from 1910 to 1980, these pieces include seminal designs by luminaries from the French couture houses and by celebrated and lesser-known American artists. Special presentations salute Britain-born American designer Charles James and some of American fashion design’s leading women.

Featured European stars include Elsa Schiaparelli, who ditched the corset, as did numerous modernists, and became known for her wrap dresses, iconoclasm, and surrealism. Her offbeat designs in the show include dresses containing playful seed-packet imagery and the surrealist butterfly symbol. She also is behind a creep-out attraction: a tin-insect necklace (1938) whose see-through base makes it look as if flies and beetles are crawling on the wearer’s skin.

Also on the bill is French fashion giant Coco Chanel, the Schiaparelli rival (“that Italian artist who makes clothes,” Chanel called her) whose designs featured an elegant simplicity. Her popular items included her little black dress, shown in incarnations reflecting the sensibilities and hemlines of different decades.

Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell, pioneering ready-to-wear designers, are part of the exhibit’s focus on American women. A “Tweed Toga” ensemble (1943), made from wool plaid, exemplifies Cashin’s interest in world clothing. An ensemble of wool jersey and cotton poplin (1946), which includes what last week’s preview tour described as perhaps the original hoodie, features the casual, accessible “American look,” which McCardell helped originate.

High-end American notables include Gilbert Adrian, known for his movie costumes. His safari-inspired “The Tigress” (1949), a wildcat-striped ensemble of silk taffeta chine and lame, worn by his wife, actress Janet Gaynor, is an exhibition eye-catcher.

The section devoted to James contains 25 pieces by the back-from-obscurity designer, who created elaborately structured dresses. His “Clover Leaf” ball gown (1953), made of silk satin, faille and shantung with lace, and his “Tree” gown (1955), a Victorian-based red silk taffeta and tulle creation, are standouts.

A digital animation component helps the viewer understand the anatomy of Charles’ gowns.

Additional featured designers include Christian Dior, Jeanne Lanvin, Elizabeth Hawes, and Norman Norell, among others. Hats and shoes, some classy and some outrageous, accompany the mannequins.

“High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection,” originally on view at the Brooklyn Museum in 2010, was curated by Jan Glier Reeder, now consulting curator at the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection

Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes July 19

Admission: $11 to $36

Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.legionofhonor.org

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Anita Katz

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