Designer Oscar de la Renta poses with models after the showing of his spring 1996 collection in New York, November 1995.
Designer Oscar de la Renta poses with models after the showing of his spring 1996 collection in New York, November 1995.
AP Photo-Paul Hurschmann/Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Fashion and Irony Both Rich at MFAH's Oscar De La Renta Show

Expensive dresses for rich, skinny women. Yes, I could have started with something like “Luxurious ensembles for fashion icons” instead, but you’ll get plenty of that chat from other publications about the exhibition “The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta,” now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. I wanted a beginning to make my review stand out, since it certainly won’t be my fashion sense that does it.

For those who have missed the hype so far, I’ll mention that de la Renta, a Dominican Republic native who died in 2014, went to Madrid as a youth to study art. In what turned out to be a series of happy steps, he apprenticed to the Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, then moved to Lanvin in Paris, Elizabeth Arden in New York, Balmain back in Paris, etc., etc., designing for the richest and most famous as he went. Et voilà, a fashion legend was born.

This exhibition of 70 or so Oscar de la Renta creations, some plucked from the closets of Houston socialites, follows a year after, and owes its origin to, a different show mounted in San Francisco, according to MFAH Director Gary Tinterow. He saw that one on Memorial Day 2016, and rushed immediately to New York to line up one for Houston. (Note: The massive catalog you can buy at the exit shop is from the SF show.)

The exhibition is divided into four themes important in the designer’s creative life: “Spain,” “The Orient” (including Russia and points east), “The Garden” and “Icons” (Taylor Swift, Penélope Cruz, Kirsten Dunst, the list goes on; they are all famous, beautiful and thin).

Since a show like this is completely about the seeing — and since you’ll certainly want to see it — there’s no point in my describing any of the garments. I will simply say that everything is beautiful at this Oscar-fest: the materials sumptuous, the craftsmanship exquisite, the designer artistry stellar. Would we expect the super-rich to pay bigly for anything less? The installation itself is boldly dramatic; the colors, richly gorgeous; the vignettes, wryly sophisticated. The whole package makes for fabulous Facebook photos. Yes, even a curmudgeon like me succumbed — though strictly fashion glamour shots; no selfies in my rolled-up jeans.

But…

I must confess I’m among the sliver of humanity that remains skeptical on the question: Do expensive dresses for skinny women rank with Michelangelo and Rembrandt at the pinnacle of the art Parnassus? Especially since museum exhibitions cost fortunes to mount, and gallery space, I’m told, is so very scarce? But sliver it must be, judging from the tsunami of hype that this and other “costume exhibitions” (as they are perhaps more professionally called) have garnered recently. And from the lines of ticket buyers. Let’s hear it for the ticket buyers. I suspect I’m channeling the MFAH financial folks when I say this.

Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain, Evening Dress, fall/winter 1999–2000, silk velvet, silk embroidery, and silk appliqué.
Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain, Evening Dress, fall/winter 1999–2000, silk velvet, silk embroidery, and silk appliqué.
© Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

We have seen lots of dresses at MFAH the past few years. There were the gowns by Worth and others in the Winterhalter show; the Downton Abbey-worthy aristocrats’ togs from Houghton Hall; and the power dresses in “Habsburg Splendor.”

In those shows, the dresses were presented as footnotes to art — no doubt art themselves in a way, but not in the way that art came to be understood over centuries — and were certainly not the whole show themselves. Yes, there is that more traditional kind of “art” in the galleries of “Glamour and Romance,” but not much, and it’s definitely a supporting feature.

“This is better than leather night at the Eagle,” opined my viewing companion as we strolled through the Oscar show. And he had a point: Both the leather there and the dresses here are about materials and image, plus a dose of power. Nobody has to wear either just to cover up. At the price point of these outfits, it’s always about power in every age.

As I toured the show, especially the “Garden” section, which includes a fabric inspired by those Marie Antoinette wore at Versailles, the phrase “let them eat cake” came to mind — though not if they want to get into these dresses, of course. We hear a lot about income inequality nowadays, but what about that other scourge, couture inequality? It too is rending the social fabric. Maybe bread-and-circuses shows like this mitigate it somewhat. We will all live richer lives, no doubt, now that we see how the rich have dressed.

MFAH isn’t alone in putting on these shows. MOMA has just opened its first costume show in 60 years. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has presented Alexander McQueen and English/American designer Charles James, with demand so great that lines stretched down the block and hours had to be extended.

Even our generally above-the-madding-crowd Menil Collection did a Charles James fashion show — coinciding, just by chance (I’m sure), with the one in New York. But at least the James designs at Menil had a direct connection to the museum itself, since all were created for the de Menil family. Sometimes these days it’s hard to remember that museums aren’t fashion houses, especially when the fashion houses (or companies, as they are more properly called) are still very much alive and selling. The Habsburg and Worth/Winterhalter brands are no longer being actively marketed, but Oscar de la Renta certainly is.

And now I suppose I must mention the wedding dresses, though wedding dresses don’t do a lot for me. They are often so very white — a color I would have thought difficult to justify with a clear conscience for most in the market these days, but what do I know? Neither my husband nor I wore one for our lavish justice-of-the-peace ceremony. The wedding pictures might have been more interesting if we had, but the color wouldn’t have been white. Did someone mention that one dress included here had been worn by Amal Clooney at her wedding with George (he wore Armani, naturally)? Ooh, aah, be still my heart.

We have Queen Victoria to thank for white wedding dresses, by the way — one of the things we learned from the Winterhalter show. Which raises the question: What do we learn from this Oscar show? I’ve always thought (and been taught) that art museum shows aren’t just about showing pretty things. It is possible to learn a great deal about art from fashion, as the recent masterpiece of an exhibition, “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” proved. That one changed our understanding of both art and culture in that crucial period. Unfortunately, it didn’t come to Houston.

Did I mention that there’s a shop as you exit, and that Oscar de la Renta, LLC, helped stock it (to report the opening remarks at the press preview I attended)? Who could have seen that coming? So now all of us can sport a little piece of Oscar, not just the .01 percent. There I go channeling those museum financial folks again. But maybe not everyone, since all the price tags I spotted were in the hundreds of dollars. And there were no dresses, not even for the rich and skinny.

“The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta”
Through January 28, 2018. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.

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