Paris and modern haute couture became synonymous in the 20th century, thanks in part to the creations of three visionary designers who are the subject of a new exhibit at the Mint Museum Randolph.
“Dior, Balmain, Saint Laurent – Elegance and Ease” showcases 30 designs by Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain and Yves Saint Laurent. Along with revolutionizing women’s fashion, these French masters founded design houses that are still creating clothes among the most coveted in the world.
On view through Jan. 12, the exhibit is curated by the Mint Museum’s Director of Fine Arts Charles Mo of the museum’s Fashion Collection. Considered to be the finest in the Southeast, the collection celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The featured designers at a glance:
• Dior is legendary for his post-World War II “New Look” silhouette of a jacket with a nipped-in waist over a full skirt that emphasized the bust and hips.
• Balmain was known for his more simple and modern, but still luxurious, silhouettes.
• Saint Laurent, whom many fashion insiders say is among the greatest innovators in fashion history, made it not only acceptable but also elegant for women to wear menswear-inspired pantsuits. The exhibit has one of his famous Le Smoking suits, a feminine take on a man’s tuxedo pants and jacket that’s become an enduring classic.
“What these three have in common is their genuine talent – they introduced new fashions, yet their designs are timeless,” says Mo. “You might see something of theirs from the 1970s or 1980s, even the 1940s, and you could wear it to a cocktail party tonight.”
Several Charlotteans who have been donors to the fashion collection are part of the exhibit, including Deidre Grubb, who donated an Yves Saint Laurent suit and a Balmain cocktail dress.
“I wore the cocktail dress to a Mint Museum party ages ago,” says Grubb. “The Saint Laurent belonged to my mother-in-law (the late Rochelle Grubb).”
These are just two of the many fashion items she has donated over the years to the museum. “I love to give things to them because I know they will be preserved for future generations to see,” she says.
Mo’s personal favorite in the exhibit is a Balmain cocktail dress, circa 1960, made of silk velvet, silk faille and silk brocade. It was purchased thanks to the Mint Auxiliary Costume Fund.
“It’s special because it was one of the very first garments I bought at auction in New York,” he says. “It broke new ground for the museum because we had never before participated in a (fashion) auction.”
The text that goes with each outfit gives interesting design details. Saint Laurent was an assistant to Dior, so you’ll see his name credited to some of the House of Dior’s clothes before Saint Laurent started his own fashion house. And Oscar de la Renta’s name pops up under the House of Balmain because of his stint as its designer from 1993 to 2002.
From the Metropolitan
Those who follow New York society will be interested to see haute couture clothing from Jayne Wrightsman, a living legend in social circles who along with her late husband Charles, an oil tycoon, are among the most generous donors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wrightsman is among the few women in the world who don’t flinch at paying $80,000 and upward for one piece of elaborate custom clothing that they may only wear a few times.
Visitors to the Mint Museum exhibit can see the level of craft involved in haute couture in Wrightsman’s exquisite evening coat and skirt from the House of Balmain when de la Renta was the designer.
“The Metropolitan Museum of Art has the top fashion collection in the world,” says Mo, who has had a long friendship with Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. “It’s incredible what they’ve got. But when the museum is offered clothes they aren’t interested in, he’ll let me know. I feel incredibly blessed whenever a box arrives from Mrs. Wrightsman or one of their other top donors.”
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