Valerie Steele's 18 Favorite Dresses from the Museum at FIT

The Museum at FIT

Get an exclusive insight into one of the world’s greatest fashion collections with renowned director and chief curator.

VALERIE STEELE, DIRECTOR OF THE MUSEUM AT FIT 
The Museum at FIT is one of the world’s great fashion museums. Founded in 1969, it has been collecting and exhibiting fashion for almost 50 years. As director and chief curator of the museum at FIT, I lead a team of 30 to build a world-class collection and to create exhibitions and public programs that educate and inspire diverse audiences. 

FASHION IN MUSEUMS

As early as the 18th century, people began to suggest that like collections of art, it might be worthwhile to collect fashion for museums because it would provide insight into the way people envisioned themselves. Over the past 150 years, fashion has been collected and exhibited by museums of art, design, and history.


The Museum at FIT holds more than fifty thousand garments and accessories from the eighteenth century to the present. Virtually every important designer from the modern era is represented in the MFIT collection, from Adrian, Balenciaga, Chanel, and Dior - all the way through the alphabet to Westwood, Xuly-Bet, Yamamoto, and Zoran.

With our collections, exhibitions, publications, and public programs, we demonstrate the social and cultural significance of fashion.

THE WHEEL OF FASHION

As a fashion historian I am amazed by how much our clothes have changed over the past 300 years. Why does fashion change? Many people believe that the fashion industry conspires to create planned obsolescence, so we have to buy new clothes.

But this is much too simplistic, since 1) Fashion existed before there was a fashion industry, and 2) There are fashions, not only in clothes, but also in music, food, and ideas. Even our names go in and out of fashion, and clearly, parents are not responding to commercial pressure when they choose their child’s name.

Designers may propose new ideas, but we are the ones who ultimately decide what we want to wear. Fashion changes, in large part, because we change — and, specifically, because our tastes change.

MY FAVORITES
The Museum at FIT is a specialized fashion museum, which interprets fashion through a variety of lenses. Many of our best exhibitions are interdisciplinary. Our goal is always to advance knowledge of fashion. The following objects, organized chronologically, are some of my favorite pieces in the museum’s collection.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 1

Robe à la française
Multicolor silk taffeta brocade
France or Italy, c. 1735


This fashionable robe à la française is one of my favorite pieces in the collection, because it exemplifies 18th-century French style. Already by the late 17th century, Paris was the capitol of fashion for the western world, due to its skillful artisans, many luxury shops, and cultivated clientele.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 2

Afternoon dress
Pink silk taffeta
USA, c. 1857

This dress is an excellent example of the mid-19th-century silhouette, but the flamboyant, saccharine pink color of the dress is most certainly its focal point. I plan to include this dress in my 2018 exhibition about the history of pink in fashion. Pictured here with its day bodice, the ensemble also includes a separate bodice for evening wear.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 3

Evening dress
Paul Poiret
Mauve and ivory silk satin and seed beeds
France, 1913


Paul Poiret is famous for his Orientalist styles. The costumes for his 1002 Night party were Persian-inspired, and Mme Poiret wore harem trousers under a short hoop skirt. Her costume inspired the famous Sorbet gown of 1913 – with its lampshade tunic decorated with pearl embroidery in sherbet colors of pistachio, pink, and mauve.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 4

'The Bride Wore Red' costume
Adrian
Red bugle bead pavé on silk crepe
USA, 1937

The great Hollywood costume designer Adrian created this costume for the movie 'The Bride Wore Red' (which, of course, was filmed in black-and-white). It was worn by Joan Crawford, and was featured in the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition 'Hollywood Costume.'

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 5

Evening dress
Cristóbal Balenciaga
Black silk velvet
France, 1938

The Museum at FIT has hundreds of Balenciagas, but this 1938 gown is my favorite. Made of rich black velvet, meticulously rendered in a cutwork leaf pattern, it subtly evokes Balenciaga’s Spanish heritage. It was donated to the museum by the celebrated woman of style, Tina Chow, who wore it in the 1970s.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 6

Dress
Madame Alix Grès
Beige wool jersey
France, 1949 - 1952

Madame Grès is best known for her classically-inspired evening gowns, but I really love this sophisticated day dress. Notice how she has gathered and fluted the fabric at the hips.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 7

Dress
Yves Saint Laurent
Multicolor wool jersey
France, 1965

Fashion and art interact in this dress by Yves Saint Laurent, which was inspired by artist Piet Mondrian's color block paintings. Saint Laurent used the flatness of the sheath silhouette to suggest the two-dimensionality of a painted canvas. He designed several versions of this dress, each one unique in its color block design.

Unlike the paintings, however, where the design is a surface application, the color blocking is integral to the construction of the dress, requiring the precision of couture pattern making and sewing. The dress was widely copied and both the original and a copy were featured in the 2015 Museum at FIT exhibition 'Faking It'.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 8

Evening dress
Yves Saint Laurent
Brown organza, plastic plaques, bronzetone beads, black seed beads, and gold metallic beads
France, 1967

This dress is from Saint Laurent's African collection, his first to look beyond Western fashion. Although inspired by African motifs and patterns, the intricate beading and embroidery were accomplished using materials and techniques typical of couture embellishment.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 9

Dress
Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel
Black silk crepe with trompe-l'oeil embroided jewelry (embroidery by Lesage)
France, 1983

After the death of Coco Chanel in 1971, the house of Chanel fell into a decline, which lasted until Karl Lagerfeld's appointment as director in 1983. This dress, from Lagerfeld’s first couture collection for Chanel, cites the history and symbolism of the Chanel style by alluding to Mlle. Chanel's personal preference for decorating a black dress with a wealth of costume jewelry – trompe-l'oeil jewelry, in this case.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 10

Necklace
Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel
Metal
France, 1991

This necklace, featured in Karl Lagerfeld's 1991 "hip hop" collection for Chanel, recalls the gold chains worn by performers such as Run-DMC. and Salt-N-Pepa. We wanted it for the museum's collections because it epitomizes the influence of street style on high fashion. The necklace is dressed with a pink and cotton wool Chanel suit from Spring 1994.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 11

Evening dress
Green acetate knit
Azzedine Alaïa
France, 1986

This 'Mermaid' dress features a zipper that wraps around the wearer’s body, demonstrating Azzedine Alaïa’s talent for construction. Alaïa trained as a sculptor at the École des Beaux Arts in Tunis, and his knowledge of the human form is intrinsic to his figure-revealing clothing.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 12

Jacket
Martin Margiela
Beige linen
France, 1997

Martin Margiela produced some of the most thought-provoking fashions of our era. His work often featured deconstruction and cast-off objects repurposed to make something entirely new. This tunic clearly mimics the look of a typical couture dress-form, and interrogates concepts of the ideal body and the standardization of fashion.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 13

Shoe
Manolo Blahnik
Zebra-printed pony skin
England, 1998

The first shoe designer to become a household name, Manolo Blahnik has created a wealth of iconic designs. This zebra-print, peep-toe shoe is one of my favorites.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 14

Dress
Junya Watanabe
Denim and metal
Japan, 2002

Junya Watanabe crafted this dress from pre-owned blue jeans, and then draped it so that the top-stitching forms a sweeping effect that mimics a 19th-century boned bodice. While Watanabe drew on the hippies’ use of repurposed denim, his deft construction skills offer a unique, incredibly-complex exploration of the methodologies of the counterculture movement.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 15

Evening dress
Helmut Lang
Red silk chiffon and horsehair
USA, 2004

Helmut Lang was an early proponent of techno fabrics and a designer of urban, minimalist clothing. This dress features an unusual combination of materials: delicate silk chiffon with a dramatic cascade of synthetic horsehair. Lang has retired from fashion and now works as an artist.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 16

Suit
Rick Owens
Off-black denim, wool felt, leather, grey ribbed knit, and crepe
France, 2008

Rick Owens is one of my favorite designers and I always look forward to his shows. Owens' sensuous, moody aesthetic has been described as “glamour meets grunge.” Because he has a profound knowledge of pattern-making, he is an innovator who has influenced fashion greatly.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 17

Dress
Alexander McQueen
Multicolor printed silk satin and chiffon
England, 2010

Alexander McQueen’s inimitable creative genius was nowhere more evident than in his futuristic "Plato’s Atlantis" collection. It envisioned a future of human reversion to an animal state, with computer-generated imagery suggesting reptilian markings.

VALERIE STEELE'S
FAVORITE NO. 18

Evening ensemble
Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy
Black leather and silk chiffon
France, 2011

Since he was appointed creative director of Givenchy in 2005, Riccardo Tisci has infused the label with a dark, sensual, and sometimes gothic edge. The Italian-born designer has attracted prominent fans like Courtney Love and Madonna, who once said that Tisci “has a classical point of view with a punk-rock sensibility.”

THE MOST FASHIONABLE MUSEUM
IN NEW YORK CITY

Fashion is one of the most accessible forms of visual culture. Everyone feels him or herself capable of understanding fashion. This is a tremendous benefit for a museum. The Museum at FIT collects, conserves, documents, exhibits, and interprets fashion.

We look for clothes that move fashion forward, and like a shark that must keep moving or it dies, a fashion museum must keep collecting not only iconic fashions of the past but also the fashions of the present.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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