Mirror, Mirror: Art Museum mines precious 'Silver and Gold Fashions'

These mermaid-inspired gowns designed by Norman Norell, originally from Philadelphia, were sewn by hand. They were a precursor to the Armani that Cate Blanchett wore to the Oscars.
These mermaid-inspired gowns designed by Norman Norell, originally from Philadelphia, were sewn by hand. They were a precursor to the Armani that Cate Blanchett wore to the Oscars. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 03, 2014

The metallic Geoffrey Beene mini in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's exhibit "Silver and Gold Fashions Since 1960" is the sartorial standout of this glitzy gallery show.

The dress is just beautiful: Beene scattered shiny hot-pink, orange, and green blossoms throughout its bodice, and he planted a garden of the neon blooms along the collar and hemline.

"The year was 1967, and Beene had declared the ball gown passé," said Kristina Haugland, who plucked all of the show's shiny showstoppers from the museum's 30,000-piece costume collection. (Note to fashion historians: Beene also sent his infamous metallic football jerseys down the runway that year. Move over, Tom Ford.) "That [floral] took the mini to new heights."

Forty-seven years later, the dress would be appropriate for today's red-carpet walkers. And like the rest of the dresses on display in the Perelman Building's 1,200-square-foot Costume and Textiles Study Gallery, it's fun to stare at. Especially when I saw the exhibit's second Beene gown, a velvet lamé halter appropriately called the Mercury: I wish I had somewhere to go that required a dash of liquid-silver luxury.

The exhibit starts with 1960 because it opened a decade in which designers started challenging long-standing fashion rules, Haugland explained. Dresses got shorter, slits got deeper. And sportswear started infiltrating formal wear. Fashion was a form of revolution, and the gilded threads that once signified royalty could now be mass-produced thanks to synthetics. Old-school opulence began bleeding into new-school space age.

Considering the possibilities, Haugland did a fantastic job of assembling a selection of themed apparel from yesteryear into a show that reflects today's trends.

There are futuristic pieces, like the pewter gown Italian designer Romeo Gigli fashioned from a crispy synthetic nylon. This voluminous frock from the designer's spring 1990 collection, with its waist-cinching cummerbund, is ethereal.

An aluminum-hued knit halter top and matching pant by Rudi Gernreich, circa 1975, remind me of the dressy jumpsuits popular this spring in evening wear. (In fact, I just bought a halter jumpsuit in cobalt blue myself.)

And a trio of simple yet elaborate gowns designed by Philadelphia-bred Norman Norell clearly inspired many of today's body-conscious, Oscar-worthy looks. Each sequin on these Norells - one silver, one gold, and one boasting a Dynasty-style peplum - was sewn by hand. These mermaid-style gowns, popular in the late 1960s and '70s, were a precursor to the golden-flecked Armani that Cate Blanchett wore to the Oscars in March.

The exhibit also featured knock-'em-dead classic looks. One of my favorites: The Todd Oldham silver-sequined mini that the designer made to look like his bedroom mirror for his fall 1992 runway is pretty eye-catching.

Fans of clothing made of recycled material will find enjoyment in "Silver and Gold," too. A floor-length slip dress from the 1966 collection of Spanish-born designer Paco Rabanne is made from hundreds of silver and black plastic disks.

Also, there's the Cleopatra-style headdress and necklace made from aluminum gears by jewelry designer and theatrical set maker Tom Norton. The 1970 accessories in all of their faux-Egyptian splendor are two of 27 items given to the museum by Norton and his Philadelphia-based sister, fine arts conservator Virginia Norton Naudé.

At some point, Haugland said, she'd like to see a retrospective of Tom Norton's jewelry work in the gallery.

"Glamour and glitter is one thing, but if you look at all the different ways you can work with a sequin, or with a medium like metal, you can appreciate the creativity in the fashion," Haugland said.


Silver and Gold Fashions Since 1960

10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays, until Oct. 31, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave. Tickets: Included in cost of museum admission. 215-763-8100.




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