Nov 192010

This exhibit is ideal for the budding designer to come and admire dresses with structured tulle, unique hems, bias cut silk, pounds of beads, sequins, and rhinestones, weaved organza and mink accents.

Scaasi: American Couturier at the Loring Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA until June 19, 2011.

Detail of Woman's ensemble in two parts (dress), 1958, worn by Arlene Francis.

By Megan Trombino.

It is not often that a fashion designer is honored with an exhibition while they are active in the industry. For Arnold Scaasi, the distinction comes in the form of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in the Loring Gallery, where a time capsule of Scaasi’s craftsmanship is on display. Cue the usual machinery for the rich and famous: galas and New York Times interviews, dinner parties, and magazine pieces where the artist will be praised for his or her impact on our culture and the fashion industry.

Last Saturday, the weekend before the opening of the new Art of the Americas wing, the weather was crisp and clear and a brilliant blue sky framed the museum’s columned architecture. The museum was buzzing with movement: event planners strategizing from room to room, reporters attending informational sessions, and museum security guarding the entrance to the reception area from prying eyes (like me). On the second floor, tucked away near the Chinese and Himalayan art, you will find Scaasi: American Courtier. From just outside the glass doors of the gallery, it appears that you will be entering a women’s formal wear showroom in a department store.

Arnold Scaasi, 1961. Photo: John French. Image courtesy of Ernestine Carter Collection/Fashion

Scaasi recently bequeathed the MFA over 100 outfits, adding to their already large archive with pieces made famous by Barbara Streisand, socialites Joetta Norban and Gayfryd Steinberg, and singer, Natalie Wood. Scaasi’s collection of gowns, cocktail dresses, coats, capes, and the infamous, two-piece, silk tulle embroidered with sequins worn by Barbara Streisand is as rich in detail and extravagance as the personalities that once wore the outfits.

Born Arnold Isaacs in Montreal in 1930, Scaasi changed his name in the late ’50s by reversing his given name, Isaacs. He studied at the Cotnoir-Capponi School of Fashion in Montreal (1948–50) and the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in Paris (1950). He was gifted enough to work with the first noted American couturier, Charles James in New York, an experience Scaasi was obviously shaped by. This mentorship into the world of couture influenced the Scaasi as well as American fashion of the late 20th century. You can see similarities between James and Scaasi in the occasional shape or overall opulence of a gown.

Woman's ensemble in two parts (blouse). Worn by: Barbra Streisand

The collection at the MFA has a personality of its own: Scaasi used luxurious and rare fabrics, which he would bring back from France regularly to create one-of-a-kind outfits for those willing to pay for the cost of custom couture. The 28 outfits in the exhibit are displayed chronologically: 1950s start on the right and follow around the curve of the room to end in the ‘90s. Some of the later pieces look like an homage to Alexis’s wardrobe from the 80’s television show Dynasty while others look like they were created to strut the Paris runways in Louboutins for the spring 2011 line.

In these pieces you can see the evolution of fashion. Scaasi’s exhibit began with a black, ivory, and red, polka-dotted balloon skirt synched at the waist. A cluster of outfits range from Barbara Streisand’s controversial, sheer, black two-piece worn at the 1969 Academy Awards to a mink-lined coat with matching mink hat and hand muff. There was a bright fuchsia, full-length skirt with black, velvet shapes designed in patches and a black, velvet bust with puffy, exaggerated, fuchsia sleeves only to be contrasted across the room by an elegant, ivory coat covered in elaborate beading. This exhibit is ideal for the budding designer to come and admire dresses with structured tulle, unique hems, bias cut silk, pounds of beads, sequins, and rhinestones, weaved organza and mink accents.

Scaasi sketch 1986 - silver lace & white organza rosebud strapless evening dress bordered in mink

Scaasi announced in July that he would be retiring as a dress maker after a lifetime in the industry. It is assumed he will turn his attention to his HSN jewelry enterprise and third book (following an autobiography in ’96 and memoir in ’04). Now 80, he has an opportunity to write about a Who’s Who of clients ranging from the 1) ladies who lunch to 2) First Ladies, 3) a game show/Broadway star, 4) the recently departed opera legend, La Stupenda, and 5) one of the most celebrated female singer/actor/directors of the 20th century. For those of you playing at home, the answers to those innuendos are 1) Brooke Astor, Joetta Norban, and Gayfryd Steinberg; 2) Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush; 3) Arlene Francis, 4) Joan Sutherland; and 5) Barbara Streisand.

The exhibit flows gracefully through time, trend, and fabric but depicts a specific social status within those times. Wealthy women, all icons in some regard, dressed in Scaasi whether on stage and screen or for ceremony and celebration. At a 1987 gala, Scaasi counted 46 women wearing his gowns. His relationships with clients, in almost every case, turned into lifelong friendships and a charmed high-class network. Relationships led to dinner parties, private showings, social engagements, and endless events that Scaasi could inevitably create outfits for.

Woman's ensemble in two parts (dress), Worn by Arlene Francis

Gazing at the aging fabrics which were once white, are now ivory, and will one day acquire an antique yellow, I thought about what separates the couturier from the tailor. They both have an eye for precision, a flair for flattery, and a price tag that could revive the global economy.

The answers are quality and imagination: quality fabrics, quality training, and a distinctive imagination separate the precision of a tailor from the elegance and artistry of the couturier. Fashion design schools teach marketing principals as well as the structure of a silhouette. Scaasi’s expressed desire is that the MFA exhibit will “not only be a resource for the study of fashion but, also, be an inspiration for students of fashion design.” Truth is, he is one of the few couturiers who have expanded our vision of design. Scaasi not only turned “fashion” into a cultural institution, but morphed it into a reality TV inspired, audience interactive art form.


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  3 Responses to “Fuse Visual Arts Feature: Spotlight on Scaasi — Revisiting an American Couturier”

Comments (3)
  1. Very well written article. Thank you for making me walk along the exhibit, even from the virtual far… The article made the exhibit vivid, and my walk through fabrics and Scaasi’s fashions, possible.

  2. You have drawn me into doing further research into Mr. Scaasi’s designs. Thank you for the essential education of a designer I knew little about prior to reading your article.

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