Visitors wandering among the slender mannequins poised on multiple levels in the de Young Museum’s ravishing new exhibition “Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style” might imagine themselves wafting through a sort of fantasy department store. Here in San Francisco, where the concept of a department store seems to be fading, this showcase is like a special, fleeting moment amid all the post-COVID bad press the city has been receiving nationally; at least it’s clear that the city has a century-long sense of style.
Excitingly, the exhibit, which runs Jan. 20 through Aug. 11, also includes a rare opportunity for guests to envision themselves wearing haute couture by Valentino and other major designers via augmented reality technology.
The mannequins, draped in ensembles that range from the exquisite to the amusing to the absurd, trace San Francisco fashion from after the 1906 earthquake to the new century.
In his opening remarks at a press preview, Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, called the exhibit a “who’s who of the women who built San Francisco.”
Many of the fashions on display, from the ball gowns worn by local philanthropists and society women at charity balls to such current apparel as the fanciful designs of Comme des Garçons, to suits and boots and more, are from the de Young’s notable collection; others were gifts from local fashionistas. Many are exhibited here for the first time.
Organized by Laura L. Camerlengo, curator in charge of costume and textile arts, “Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style” is the de Young’s first such display in more than 30 years.
Divided into seven sections—Re-Asserting Identity, The Little Black Dress, After the Ball, Global Aesthetic Influences, Well-Suited, Avant-Garde and Best Foot Forward—the exhibit covers work by 50 designers, including such familiar names as Dior, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, and many more.
Plaques clearly place items in historical context. One such plaque is sadly all too familiar: “In 1906 the great earthquake and fire effectively destroyed downtown’s retail landscape.” But by 1908, department stores were moving back to the Union Square area and selling French-made clothing and adaptations of French haute couture.
The most comical among the gowns is Vivienne Tam’s colorful, Chinese-style sheath in the Avant Garde section. It’s patterned with multiple, geometrically placed images of the face of Mao—in pigtails and a Peter Pan collar, in priest’s garb, looking cross-eyed at an insect on his nose.
In “After the Ball,” look for Vivienne Westwood’s silk satin, beaded, short-sleeved evening jacket and, if you like vibrant color and flash, Edwin Oudshoorn’s bright green gown with detachable sleeves, named “Spellbound.”
A dreamy, drapey silk Chanel dress with stars on a black background shows her commitment to ease of movement and comfort, as the accompanying plaque suggests.
In “Best Foot Forward,” the shoes are displayed not on the feet of mannequins but in a glass case, poised as artworks, which they are: delicate tiny sandals with 10-inch heels, thigh-high golden boots, Manolo Blahnik embroidered slippers, tie-dyed boots, dainty shoes from the early 20th-century so impossibly tiny that, like the earliest dresses themselves, are reminders that humans were smaller then.
Thrillingly accompanying the exhibition is an interactive installation, a partnership between the Fine Arts Museums and Snapchat AR, in which guests can get of photo of themselves wearing three couture designs: a 1955 “Soirée de Paris” Dior number by Yves Saint Laurent; an evening ensemble with a plunging neckline by San Francisco designer Kaisik Wong and a 1987 print gown by Valentino. The state-of-the-art technology makes each gown a perfect fit. This is the first time such a feature has been part of an American museum exhibit, and it feels like the icing on a particularly luscious cake.
“Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style” runs Jan. 20 through Aug. 11 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. Admission is $32 general, $29 senior; $23 student; $12 for youth at famsf.org.
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