IF YOU SAW the movie Phantom Thread and swooned over the clothing (even as you were trying to figure out what on earth was going on); if you delighted in the 1950s outfits worn by Rachel Brosnahan in Amazon’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, now hear this: You’re ready for the Norman Norell exhibit at the Museum at FIT , at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, which runs through mid-April.
We civilians don’t hear too much about the modern-day master born in 1900 as Norman David Levinson—or, as my late, great friend Madeleine called him, “my cousin,” though she never had the nerve to approach him for a fashion fix. But he’s among the 20th-century designers whose names cause fashion scholars to nod their heads and sometimes moan, audibly. Mainbocher and Charles James are two others who come quickly to mind.
Did you see all the craziness that hit the Gucci runway last month (models carrying severed heads, that sort of thing)? That’s so not this! This is clothing. Quiet clothing. Elegant, simple, impeccably tailored clothing. Expensive, yes, but arguably timeless too. There are two evening gowns in the FIT show that could be worn to a gala tonight without anyone guessing they were designed in 1959 in one case, 1965 in the other. There’s an exquisitely simple wool-jersey shirtwaist dress with a killer silk-taffeta bow at the neck that first lady Melania Trump could rock at her next public event; even she would have to be told that it dated from the year after she was born.
The mother of a friend died in Washington DC some dozen years ago. On the upstairs landing of her mother’s stately brick home were racks of dresses, coats, furs, gowns. Some of them, my friend told me with a hint of awe in her voice, were by Norell, who died in 1972. But the dresses were size 16s and she feared no one would be able to use them. Really? Well, I hope some lucky woman did seize the opportunity, even if she had to alter them to fit. What treasure!
For the rest of us there’s the FIT exhibit, open through April 14, 2018.
Norell: Dean of American Fashion, The Museum at FIT, Seventh Avenue at 27th Street, New York, New York 10001; fitnyc.edu; closed Sundays and Mondays; open Tuesday-Friday noon-8pm, Saturdays 10am-5pm. Through Saturday, April 14, 2018.