Museum of the City of New York: Bette Makes “Notorious and Notable-20th Century Women of Style”

New York Times
How the Other Half Dressed
September 16, 2010

Fashion Week may be over, but the runway at the Museum of the City of New York isn’t going anywhere for a few months. The museum’s fall show “Notorious and Notable: 20th Century Women of Style,” offers a front-row look at the trends of bygone eras.

Essentially, it’s a sweeping, three-dimensional “best-dressed” list – one that starts with the wives of robber barons and ends with modern business executives. Their outfits, from the museum’s costume and textile collection, are arranged on either side of a long aisle. There’s jewelry, too, coaxed from private collections with the help of the National Jewelry Institute. But the clothes are the main draw.

Everything looks spectacular, though the show isn’t quite as plugged in to contemporary ideas of celebrity as its title would suggest. “Notorious” here often means “eccentric” – as in the “Grey Gardens” matron Edith Bouvier Beale. Sometimes it refers to women who were seen as the victims of scandal, like Sunny von Bülow.

Younger viewers schooled on Hiltons, Lohans and Kardashians and the Haus of Gaga may find these examples rather conservative. But the show’s 80 subjects aren’t all drawn from the Social Register; artists, actresses and even a few career women make the cut.

Consider the oft-arrested 1920s actress Imogene Wilson, represented by a louche set of evening pajamas, or the burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, whose stripper costume of mitred black-and-white stripes is a highlight of the exhibition. (From the front, it looks like another high-necked 1940s ensemble, but it has a row of snaps all the way up the back.)

The “Notable” set, meanwhile, includes the dress Brooke Astor wore to Truman Capote’s Black-and-White Ball: a prim, almost bridal-looking princess gown of white lace with a black rose corsage at the waist. Also here is a floaty metallic number worn by Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, late Gilded Age couture embroidered with Egyptian lotus leaves.

But the show isn’t split into “Notable” and “Notorious” sections; as its curator Phyllis Magidson said, some of the women slipped from one category to the other. Nor is it organized chronologically, or by designer, as costume exhibitions often are.

Instead, the clothing is arranged by color Рa brilliant idea, like scrambling the seating at a dinner party. So a black Halston with a plunging V-neck for the 1950s model Betsy Pickering winds up near a velvet Madame Gr̬s worn by Mary French Rockefeller. (The Gr̬s, by the way, has translucent panels and is pretty racy in its own right.)

The relationship between color and reputation isn’t always intuitive. One might expect to find a higher concentration of social swans in black and white and tabloid fodder in red, but that’s not the case here.

The clothes and jewels are accompanied by brief, fawning biographies and somewhat livelier snippets of press coverage. A slide show displays portraits of some of the women, along with pertinent quotes.

Not surprisingly, some of the most outrageous ensembles belonged to women in music, theater and the performing arts. In this category are Bette Midler’s sequined and hologram-spangled mermaid costume, from the early 1990s, and the 1940s vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker’s voluminous cape (lined in synthetic leopard print and worn over a gold-beaded gown).

Art-world sophistication, meanwhile, is demonstrated by the sculptor Louise Nevelson’s paillette-dotted Scaasi coat, the art historian Rosamond Bernier’s glittering bronze Zandra Rhodes caftan, and the collector Ethel Scull’s brightly striped Stephen Burrows jersey dress.

Most of the costumes are dressy, but the show does include one example of day wear: Mary Ann Blumenthal’s Vionnet ensemble of camel-colored wool, trimmed in sealskin and accented with a magenta suede belt.

Unlike many other costume shows, this exhibition recognizes a range of body types: for instance, those of the sturdy politician Bella Abzug and the pint-sized fashion reporter Eugenia Sheppard. Both were power dressers, though possessed of very different physiques.

And while some of the designs on view are strictly for the young, the show makes plenty of room for older women with style: the grande dame Angela Lansbury and the “geriatric glamazon” Iris Apfel, for instance (whose mannequin is accessorized with a large pair of spectacles).

The display of jewelry, organized by Judith Price, president of the National Jewelry Institute, seems more concerned with old money and new money than with the notable/notorious theme. But it includes some impressive pieces, among them Countess Mona Von Bismarck’s pearl bracelet with an enormous pyramid cabochon of sapphire, and a filigreed gold evening bag carried by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. And it does devote a case to women with powerful jobs, like Cathie Black, Barbara Walters and Diana Vreeland.

Vreeland’s “Trophee de Vaillance” brooch by Jean Schlumberger, with its enameled arrow piercing a diamond-encrusted suit of armor, is a witty conversation piece. But the quotation that accompanies it feels more relevant to this sartorially rarefied show: “What do I think about the way most people dress? Most people are not something one thinks about.”

“Notorious and Notable: 20th Century Women of Style” runs through Jan. 3 at the Museum of the City of New York, Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street; (212) 534-1672;

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