Costume Society  |  June 8, 2016

The “King of Evening” in all his Glory

Recently I visited Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective at San Francisco’s de Young Museum and what a magical day it was.  Situated in the heart of the Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum plays host to the grandeur and majesty of Oscar de la Renta (1932-2014) and his couture creations.  With the sun splitting the sky and surrounded by spectacularly luscious green gardens this was the perfect venue to experience the ‘King of Evening’ in all his glory.

The exhibition is a journey through Oscar de la Renta’s fantastic career spanning over 50 years, starting with his apprenticeship in Madrid with Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, through his ready-to-wear collections at Elizabeth Arden and Jane Derby, to his Haute Couture collections for Balmain from 1993-2002.

Although traditional in approach, the exhibition does not take a chronological approach.  Curators André Leon Talley and Jill D’Alessandro instead present a thematic and inspirational exploration through de la Renta's remarkable career dressing some of the world’s most glamorous women.  Oscar de le Renta’s inspiration came from Spain, France and eighteenth century French Fashion, Russia and Asia and this exhibition transported me to Versailles, Travel, Gardens and Nature, Day and Night, Ballroom and the Red Carpet.

Leon Talley and D’Alessandro keep it simple throughout the exhibition with short, easy to read texts and my attention was instead focused on the stunning displays of the gowns instea. Mounted on Schlappi mannequins and decked out with ornate earrings, the gowns were raised on platforms set against backdrops of New York, famous paintings depicting Flamenco dancers or, as seen in the Garden section, delicate foliage from floor to ceiling.  Being such a visual person, permission to take photos was a huge bonus for me, and so I took full advantage of this opportunity. 

With so much to see I could have spent hours looking at the intricate appliqué and embroideries and beads and jewels sparkled amongst metres of silk taffeta. This was an experience shrouded in femininity, elegance and strength, conveying the opulence of the court of Oscar de la Renta.       

A particular highlight of the exhibition for me was the recreation of the 1948 Cecil Beaton photograph of the salon interior featuring dresses designed by Charles James.  As one of my favourite fashion images of all time, this the section that stood out for me.  In December 2010, to illustrate the emergence of models from China, Japan and South Korea, Vogue magazine and Steven Miesel recreated this famous image using eight models, all Asian, wearing Oscar de le Renta ball gowns from his spring 2011 collection.  The juxtaposition of history and the present cement de la Renta's influence on fashion, while the models’ Mohawk hairstyles combined with traditional evening wear give the image a youthful edge. 

Exiting through the obligatory gift shop, I picked up a copy of the accompanying exhibition catalogue.  Upon exiting, I noticed that there was a larger than life size portrait of the man himself, adding his personal goodbye to what had felt like a pilgrimage to the shrine of the King of Evening.

Scott Schiavone, guest blogger.

  • Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective; picture by Scott Schiavone
  • Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective; picture by Scott Schiavone
  • Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective; picture by Scott Schiavone
  • Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective; picture by Scott Schiavone
  • Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective; picture by Scott Schiavone
  • Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective; picture by Scott Schiavone
  • Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective; picture by Scott Schiavone
  • Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective; picture by Scott Schiavone
  • Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective; picture by Scott Schiavone