The Dominican-born man who dressed first ladies, movie stars, and aristocracy believed that we live in an era of women’s celebration. In his eyes, fashion was nothing without the confidence and power of the woman who wears the piece. He once said, “What women have achieved in the last 50 years, I wish men would have achieved in the last 100.”
Looking at his unprecedented career, which spanned over five decades, I can’t imagine someone would say that Oscar de la Renta didn’t achieve a great deal within his lifetime. To commemorate this, the de Young Museum is showcasing over 130 of his creations over the entirety of this career, starting with his early days working with Balenciaga in Spain until his death in 2014.
Curated by Vogue’s André Leon Talley, “Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective” walks us through Oscar’s world, where each of the five galleries are organized to represent a specific influence of his designs. We start in his early career, after de la Renta had come to Spain to study painting and began sketching for leading Spanish fashion houses. He left Spain in ‘61 to work as a couture assistant at Lanvin, but soon realized that his gravitation toward ready-to-wear would take him to America. It was in New York, first working with Elizabeth Arden and then Jane Derby, that he transfigured into one of the United State’s most renowned designers. After the “Battle of Versailles,” where five old-fashion French designers showcased against five American designers, including de la Renta, he became an international phenomenon.
As you walk through the galleries, it’s in the Spanish, Eastern, and Russian influenced red rooms that you see the range of his artistry. With long, layered silk taffeta skirts and black lace, his Spanish influence is obvious. Paired against the backdrop of John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo” painting, we envision the gowns having a kinetic energy of their own. Further down the aisle, you may stop to inspect the long, thick blue robe with golden threaded designs, a reference to Ming Dynasty pottery. Against another classical painting, “The Russian Bride’s Attire” by Konstantin Makovsky, are strikingly similar designs of the women in the painting, where the mannequins are clad in gold silk, red velvet bodices, and fox fur capes.
And if these aren’t interesting enough for you? Possibly the most flamboyant pieces in the exhibit are in the red carpet section of the tour, where you’ll be bombarded with striking camera light and images of Taylor Swift, Karlie Kloss, Penelope Cruz, and more, in their iconic haute couture pieces scattered throughout the mirrored room. If you look close enough through the maze of dresses, you may find a few gems, such as the leopard print piece worn by Hillary Clinton in 2001.
However, it’s in the Garden Room where I became totally convinced of De La Renta’s genius. Each ensemble was inspired by de la Renta’s love of nature and flowers. It’s in this room where you see English countryside-styled summer gowns and pastel pinstripe fabrics. My personal favorite pieces of the entire exhibit–one the Marie Antoinette floral gown created for Vogue’s 2006 photoshoot of Kirsten Dunst, and the other a Disney princess-pink tulle ballgown–rest at opposite corners of the room, separated by a screen playing footage of the designer’s country home gardens in Kent, CT.
If you love fashion, you’ll probably love it. But, I must warn that expecting too much out of this simple tribute will result in disappointment. This is not a spectacle and anyone wanting to be blown away by the presentation may leave feeling cheated. If you’re not allured simply by the name, then I recommend letting this show slide by, as it is sometimes painfully obvious that the exhibit is not for the public, but rather for die-hards, tailors, and wealthy ladies. For me, being able to be so close to the pieces was enough to forgive all that. Oscar de la Renta’s work, though sometimes diverse in style and composition, spoke to women in a more intimate way than socialite chatter and lavish spectacles. His work spoke to the individual, from many walks of life. His gowns didn’t convey a message that only the richest and most powerful women could read, but rather translated a language that all women already understood into a reality.
Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective at San Francisco’s de Young Museum is open until May 30, 2016.
Photo courtesy of Drew Altizer Photography