“I went through the closet of SCAD’s growing collection of couture examples for the costume department – I think we have 150 world class pieces of couture – and found so many great examples of the little black dress. That was the moment the seed was planted in my brain that this should be an exhibit.”
So said Vogue Contributing Editor and Savannah College of Art and Design trustee André Leon Talley of the idea behind the just-opened Little Black Dress exhibit he curated for his eponymous gallery at the SCAD Museum of Art.
We sat on the back porch of his guest cottage at Savannah’s historic Magnolia House the morning after the opening, which had drawn several of his Vogue colleagues, designers, and fashion-world stars, such as Dr. Lisa Airan, who gamely posed beside the Rodarte and Tom Ford creations she lent André for the exhibit.
One of the most striking things about Little Black Dress is that while offering a smattering of historical dresses from Madame Grès, Fortuny, Chanel, Valentino, and Balenciaga, the majority of the 80-plus dresses on display are from the 21st century, be it the Prabal Gurung décolleté evening dress worn by Zoe Saldana to the 2012 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards, the 2007 Lily et Cie feather-trimmed dress named for André’s late grandmother, or the lace Comme des Garçons number Marc Jacobs wore to the Met Gala earlier this year.
And at least one of the dresses here isn’t even a dress at all, but a spider-structured crinoline undercarriage (a.k.a. the prototype for a dress-in-progress) that André spied during a visit to Zac Posen’s studio to preview the spring 2013 collection and immediately liberated for his exhibit. Then there’s Anna Wintour’s dress from Chanel Haute Couture c. 2006, which André claims is the LBD that started it all (hence its position of honor in a plexiglass frame hung high on the red lacquered wall).
“I kept thinking this is not an academic point of view about the black dress, and I’m not going to try to create a show that’s academically correct,” explained André. “We want to give people something they’ve never experienced.”
Which is why, in addition to artist Rachel Feinstein’s wooden carriage sculpture (representing, says André, “collapsed elegance”), you’ll find mannequins in much more naturalistic poses than one traditionally sees in a museum exhibit. Take, for instance, the white gloves held behind the back of a tulle-and-taffeta Oscar de la Renta confection, signaling that the wearer is ready to retire for the evening.
Likewise, seven striking mannequins – designed by Rootstein and chosen by André because they had the lean and “hungry” look of real underfed socialites – are seated on a long black bench either huddled in conversation or perched with their hands elegantly clasped atop their knees. They allow the viewer to viscerally experience the nonchalant attitude of young women who routinely wear these rarefied ball gowns (by the likes of Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Carolina Herrera, Vera Wang, and SCAD alum Victoria Wilmoth). Yes, they’re stunningly beautiful – but they also feel modern and very much of-this-world.
Ditto the crepe de Chine Madame Grès (which resembles a stingray in motion thanks to the artfully placed fans blowing beneath it) and the Edward Wilkerson for Lafayette 148 beaded cocktail frock (a current bestseller at Neiman Marcus), which André put on the mannequin backwards, thereby heightening the “anything goes” feel of today’s LBD.
“There are no rules anymore,” opined André. “The people of today are interpreting what a black dress is.” And he, in turn, is sharing it with the rest of us.
The Little Black Dress exhibit will be on view in the André Leon Talley Gallery at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia through January 27, 2013, and will travel to select cities worldwide thereafter.
Lauren David Peden writes for Rue La La as a Contributing Editor.