Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style

de Young Museum, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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The de Young Museum opened its abundant costume department storage closets for its newest exhibition, “Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style.” It’s a fascinating and significant display of almost 100 ensembles of high fashion and haute couture apparel worn over a century by San Francisco women. Although recently known for its casual style of denim, tie-dyed t-shirts, and athleisure wear, the Bay Area has always had a significant high fashion following.

Sarkis Der Balian shoe. 1955.


“Fashioning San Francisco,” a uniquely local collection, is divided thematically into seven sections, including clothing and shoes made by more than 50 fashion designers from Balmain to McQueen. Interestingly, the exhibit illustrates how much, yet also how little, fashion has changed in 100 years. This similarity is apparent in the shoe area, where it is difficult to tell the late 20th-century pumps from the very early ones, for example, Sarkis Der Balian’s contemporary-looking open-toed sling-back shoes created in 1955.


The post-1906 earthquake dresses are the most dissimilar from contemporary fashion. Their section highlights several sophisticated floor-length early French designs, including rare Callot Sœurs and Lucile gowns worn between 1906 and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. After the earthquake, San Francisco society matrons needed new clothes and could import French fashions through its port. During that era, the French made up one of the largest immigrant communities in San Francisco, so there was a substantial nexus with French designers (remember San Francisco’s French Hospital?).

Christian Dior, Junon, 1949 Haute Couture


The display of ball gowns, entitled “After the Ball,” contains the most ornate and sumptuous styles. Two standouts are the pale 1949-50 Christian Dior “sister” evening gowns with curved skirt flounces of silk, beads, and sequins. These elaborate and feminine garments, labeled “Junon “and “Venus,” were gifts of the much-missed San Francisco luxury department store, I. Magnin & Company, which toured the West Coast as part of the store’s traveling fashion exhibitions.


No fashion show would be complete without a section dedicated to an essential wardrobe item, “The Little Black Dress.” This area features black dresses by Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, and others. Other areas highlight the “power suit,” Avant Garde clothing, and those inspired by Asian, African, and other international cultures, which are acknowledged as cultural appropriation.
And to cap it all off, in the first-floor Piazzoni Murals Room, there is an enjoyable and amusing opportunity to “try on” three of the ensembles digitally. Snapchat technology digitally reproduces each outfit to fit your body using augmented reality and 3D techniques. The “wearer” can see each dress’s front and back through motion tracking. And photos are easily available.


As much as the ensembles themselves, “Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style” is a love letter to those leading philanthropists whose donations and loans made this show the treasure that it is: Constance B. Peabody, Norah Stone, Diane B. Wilsey, Christine Suppes, Georgette “Dodie” Rosekrans, and Denise Hale, among many others. For example, Ms. Suppes donated 500 ensembles to the de Young, which she accumulated over the last 30 years. Ms. Rosekrans was a patron of John Galliano, financed many of his early collections, and supported up-and-coming, late-20th-century designers like Chinese American designer Kaisik Wong.


The de Young Museum has been collecting costumes since its founding in 1895. This show marks the first display of de Young’s permanent collection since 1989 and is curated by the museum’s new Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, Laura L. Camerlengo. She has successfully presented these gorgeous clothes in a large, airy space, with subtle backdrops of famous city locations, such as the Palace of Fine Arts and the Opera House. The in-depth labels, wall chat information, audio tour, and printed catalog all add to one’s enjoyment of this glamorous glimpse into San Francisco’s high fashion world.

By Emily S. Mendel
emilymendel@gmail.com
© Emily S. Mendel 2024 All Rights Reserved

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