The work of James Galanos rips apart the now-tired dichotomy of fashion/art at the seams by showing that fashion has its own concerns, its own complexities, for which there are few artistic equivalents—trying repeatedly to pattern one on the other will only lead to a bad night’s sleep. Take the simplicity and outrageousness of Galanos’ 1958 coat dress in butterscotch-colored wool and llama flannel (twill weave) by Leseur from the personal wardrobe of house model Pat Jones (now Weiss). Cinched at the waist by an extravagantly oversized belt, only a recent leather example by Martin Margiela comes close to equaling the largesse of this accessory, it shows definitively how elegance is often refusal of the expected. Stunning frocks that might seem to hearken back to artistic sources, the Klimt lily-pad patterns and palette of Evening Dress with Belt, 1969, soon raze such quandaries with the microexplosions of their material complexity: “Bodice of black over yellow silk chiffon, vertically pin-tucked; bead embroidery by D. Getson, Eastern Embroidery; skirt of white silk and printed matelassé (double weave), printed in yellow, pink, pale green, and brown with a black ground by Staron with a self-belt by Winton.” The eye taking it all in, certainly the body that goes to dazzle in it, couldn’t care less whether it’s art or fashion, it’s just gaga over it all.
Born in Philadelphia in 1924, after stints in the House of Robert Piguet (famous in no small part for its deep, heady fragrance, Fracas) and in Hollywood for film costume-designer Jean Louis, Galanos opened up his own workroom in 1951, after a buyer from Saks bought an entire suite of his dresses. Galanos still refers to his remarkable tailoring as “custom ready-to-wear,” even though he employs many of couture’s labor-intensive techniques, which make, he reminds those who forgot, a garment “as beautiful on the inside as [on the] outside.” Because this show was so carefully installed by curator Sandy Rosenbaum, the clothes themselves so ravishing and intellectually satisfying, it is appalling that more effort was not put into the shoes, especially since Galanos designed shoes for each of his collections, none of which were on display. My guess is that the ladies who don Galanos slip into something by Roger Vivier or Manolo Blahnik, not Payless, who appeared to have a shoe exclusive with whoever was in charge.
In a captivating if too brief documentary video, it’s exhilarating to watch big-time fashion watchers and inveterate smokers Bernadine Morris (of the New York Times) and Nancy White (former editor of Harper’s Bazaar) hold forth on “Jimmy’s” superbness, noting subtle, often unphotographable details: “Smocking that will change its size as it goes down the garment to make you look broader or smaller or just to please the eye” and (my favorite) “He revived chiffon.” Galanos would revive it by innovation: he “tailored it into flat pleats” rather than draping it. He formed longtime almost collaborative relationships with two house models, first Pat Jones, whom he says “had a walk that no one had,” and later Natalie Tirrell, who garnered that plumb assignment after working for Pucci.
California style (yes, it does exist) is often odd, garish, and incomprehensible. After all, the pleasure of the Oscars is seeing fashion out of control. There are plenty of examples of it in this exhibit, and I wouldn’t want to go on living without them. One unbelievable number is a hand-sequined-and-beaded evening dress with a bead-encrusted vest from 1984, so heavily worked one really would need to study topography to comprehend it. To get its shoulder action, imagine Diana Vreeland in control of costumes on the set of a Star Trek spin-off. Think Sharon Stone in Casino and you’ll begin to grasp the importance of Galanos’ Evening Jumpsuit with Belt and Stole, Fall 1990, which employs a gilded faux-fur leopard print for an ensemble situated by a V-neck sable top. What makes all this engrossing is seeing Galanos do things so stunning because so restrained and austere, like his knockout sunset-orange Short Coat, Wrapped Two-button Side Closure, 1990, in wool, shown with an orange-felt hat covered in gold mesh, or the subtle grain of the ivory wool and silk crepe “Goumba” by Staron of his Ball Dress, Fall 1966, worn by Nancy Reagan, a frequent client and friend, for her first gubernatorial inaugural ball on January 5, 1967.
Yes, this is often dragon-lady high style. But beauty can be scary, too. The California wonder and ugliness, the glamour and menace that appear again and again (captured so well by Joan Didion’s gorgeous icy prose) make for a complex knockout coherency, perhaps most stunningly apparent in the Theater Ensemble Coat Dress with Belt, 1959, in off-white silk satin by Staron and green silk velvet. The light glints off the satin and disappears in the expanse of the jacket lining’s emerald-velvet noirish interior. Galanos’ New York correlate would be Geoffrey Beene but with strange, earthquake-induced shifts. Of both it can be said, as Galanos’ current model-favorite Natalie Tirrell did of him, “He touches fabrics lightly, as if there’s life in them.”