Oscar de la Renta: First Ladies’ First Choice

Five Decades of Style

Today’s column is by my friend Cindy Graff Cohen, a fan of fashion history and fine fabrics. She called me last week excited about a landmark fashion exhibit in Dallas: “Oscar de la Renta: Five Decades of Style.” It sounds lovely – a great combination of runway style, red carpet glamour, and historic moments!

Every so often, a major art museum hosts a retrospective of a great designer and if I can just get there, Nan lets me write about it. In this column, I’ve previously marveled at Cristobal Balenciaga’s sophisticated evening gowns at the DeYoung Museum of Art in San Francisco and Jean Paul Gaultier’s theatrical creations at the Dallas Museum of Art. However, this time the most exciting fashion exhibit anywhere this month is at a presidential library: the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the SMU campus.

“Oscar de la Renta: Five Decades of Style” is a dazzling collection of work by the designer who created gorgeous clothing for three First Ladies: Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush. The show features more than 60 outfits, including more than a dozen outfits worn by those three high-profile women.

When you think about the personal styles of each of these women, you kind of scratch your head and wonder how one designer could have clothed each so beautifully – and through such disparate fashion eras, from the big-shoulder ‘80s through this decade – yet de la Renta created just the right look for each president’s wife.

It all comes down to the designer’s approach to the individual client. “I have always felt my role as a designer is to do the best I can for a woman to make her look her best,” he says. “Fashion is only fashion once a woman puts it on.”

In the introductory video, Laura Bush describes what makes de la Renta’s designs so admired. “Oscar is the loveliest man,” she says, “and he really likes women!” The exhibit opens with two dresses she wore at the 2005 inauguration: the winter white wool boucle dress and matching coat for the ceremony and the silver silk sequined gown for the inaugural balls. “You can wear Oscar’s clothes over and over and I have,” she adds.

Two of Laura Bush’s ensembles for Inauguration Day 2005: silver sequined ball gown for evening and winter white wool boucle dress and matching coat for the swearing-in ceremony

Two of Laura Bush’s ensembles for Inauguration Day 2005: silver sequined ball gown for evening and winter white wool boucle dress and matching coat for the swearing-in ceremony

A real standout in the show is Jenna Bush’s wedding dress. I listened to a couple of little girls say it was their favorite dress there; they just stood and stared at it, kind of like me. “There was only one designer for Jenna to choose for her wedding dress,” Bush said in the video. Next to the gown is the blue silk suit that the proud mother of the bride wore to the 2008 wedding; on the other side is a graceful red de la Renta gown their other daughter, Barbara, wore to a UNICEF ball.

Left to right: Red evening gown worn by the Bushes’ daughter Barbara, Jenna Bush’s richly embroidered wedding gown, and the blue silk suit Laura Bush wore to Jenna’s wedding

Left to right: Red evening gown worn by the Bushes’ daughter Barbara, Jenna Bush’s richly embroidered wedding gown, and the blue silk suit Laura Bush wore to Jenna’s wedding

Some of de la Renta’s classic creations are timeless, such as the simple gold gown Hillary Clinton wore to an inaugural ball. Others, like Nancy Reagan’s almost comical big-plaid wool suit with a huge paisley bow tie, are best seen as period pieces of a strange fashion hiccup.

Nancy Reagan's suit: A blast from the past

Nancy Reagan’s suit: A blast from the past

Other de la Renta designs include a lavish pink silk gown with a train that singer Taylor Swift wore this year to the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a section of the exhibit featuring dresses worn by movie stars are a glittering silver gown worn by Sarah Jessica Parker and one of the gowns worn by Anne Hathaway when she co-hosted the

Taylor Swift's embroidered pink ball gown with train

Taylor Swift’s embroidered pink ball gown with train

Academy Awards. Vogue editor Anna Wintour also loaned a couple of her de la Renta outfits.

Although his exclusive ready-to-wear lines are worn by discerning women all over the world, he does have a gift for working with special clients, including Mercedes Bass, who sponsored this splendid exhibit. She loaned several of her own dresses, including two striking black and white Spanish-influenced gowns from 2006.

Mercedes Bass, exhibit sponsor, lent two stunning Spanish-influenced gowns

Mercedes Bass, exhibit sponsor, lent two stunning Spanish-influenced gowns

The designer, who was born in the Dominican Republic, launched his career in Madrid, where he trained at the Balenciaga studios – you can see how he was influenced by Spanish culture and art. Later he moved to Paris to work at couture design houses including Lanvin and Pierre Balmain. However he has lived in New York City since the 1960s and he became a U.S. citizen in 1969. Ever since, he certainly has done his part to keep America beautiful.

 

Oscar de la Renta: Five Decades of Style

Through Sunday, October 5

Tickets to George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum ($17)

can be purchased in advance at bushcenter.org

Southern Methodist University, Dallas