Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style at the de Young

Originally Published in the Marina Times San Francisco in February 2024

Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style at the de Young

Haute couture meets history in the de Young’s latest exhibit Fashioning San Francisco. From bohemian styles to high-end evening wear, San Francisco’s location on the Pacific Rim combined with its creative, inclusive mindset helped to develop the unique fashion of the Bay Area. Fashioning San Francisco presents the work of more than 50 fashion designers, from Balmain to Miyake, Valentino to McQueen with the majority of ensembles to be displayed for the very first time.

Civic, Social and Cultural Change

The exhibit commences in the early 20th century, a time when the city was recovering and regaining its position after the earthquake and fire in 1906.  The port delivered imported French fashions and French couture gowns at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. During the 19th and 20th century, the French represented one of the largest immigrant communities in San Francisco.  Early French designs will be on display from French designers including rare Callot, Soeurs and Lucile gowns, attesting to the city’s affluence and cosmopolitanism.

The Little Black Dress to the Avant-Garde

The continuance of international trade birthed the rise of department stores as importers of European haute couture in the mid-20th century. The San Francisco economy was booming, and iconic department stores cropped up in the city including I. Magnin, City of Paris, The White House, and Lilli Ann. The night life and its related social scene created a demand for clothes that made a statement. The exhibition dedicates a section to the most indispensable piece in a wardrobe, “the little black dress,” featuring elegant black dresses from Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfield, Oscar de la Renta and more. Always embracing the experimental, San Franciscans also supported more radical designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto. A mix of materials and styles are represented including the “power suit”, and other Western designers inspired by Asian and African aesthetics along with other international cultures. The exhibition concludes with a selection of shoes from the Fine Arts Museum’s permanent collection adding to the mix of materials and styles of San Francisco’s diversity. A Vivienne Westwood evening jacket, a pair of shoes by Sarkis Der Balian, and a Ralph Rucci cape and gown – the Fine Arts Museums’ costume collection is one of the strongest in the country, promoting the idea that the so-called “major” fashion cities of Paris, Milan, London and New York now include San Francisco as a fashion capital.

Interact with Fashion with Augmented Reality Try-On Experience

For the first time in a museum setting, an interactive augmented reality installation at the de Young will give visitors a chance to see how three evening ensembles presented in the exhibition look on them.  The technology company Snap Inc. is collaborating with the museum, bringing fashion to life via virtual reality. The Snapchat augmented reality mirrors are an immersive experience allowing the public to “try on” outfits by the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent, Chinese-American Bay Area-based designer Kaisik Wong, and Italian designer Valentino. The three mirrors transform the museum into a virtual changing room enabling visitors to model these classic ensembles.

A Legacy of Style

Prominent individuals in the Bay Area donated to create much of the museum’s collections. Laura L. Camerlengo, Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco said “These individuals further contributed to the cultural fiber of their communities by donating their wardrobes to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco for the preservation and the benefit of future generations.  We are delighted to honor and elevate their legacies.”

Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style will be accompanied by a 200 page exhibition catalogue. A lavish collection of full color photos and essays explore the city’s position in the world with a special focus on women’s contributions to civic life and how women have shaped this collection.

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