As 2015 gets washed, cut and styled out of my hair on New Year’s Eve, I’ll be thinking about what would transform this holiday from dreaded to dreamy. Someday, I’d like to attend the Hofburg Silvesterball, the New Year’s Eve ball that’s held in the staterooms of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria.
The ball officially opens with the Fächerpolonaise, during which debutantes from the Elmayer Dance School enter the ballroom. Then, soloists from the Vienna State Opera and the Volksoper sing the Austrian national anthem. At midnight, the Pummerin at St. Stephen’s Cathedral – the largest bell in Austria –rings in the New Year, followed by a fireworks display. Finally, guests take to the floor to dance the Blue Danube Waltz and a quadrille.
What would I wear to the Hofburg Silvesterball? My current choice is the Clover Leaf Ball Gown, the ivory satin and black velvet evening dress that Charles James designed in 1953 and considered his crowning glory. This elegant gown features a 15-pound, four-lobed skirt that balances on the wearer’s hips so that when she moves, it gracefully glides off the floor, like an ice skater’s skirt does when she pirouettes.
The Clover Leaf Ball Gown is one of over 100 garments and accessories on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum in an exhibition titled High Style: Twentieth-Century Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection. Organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition traces the evolution of fashion from 1900 through 1980.
One section of the exhibition is devoted to James’s unique creations, all constructed with groundbreaking techniques. By winding fabric around the body, James fashioned the Taxi Dress, a wrap dress constructed so simply that it could be put on in a taxi cab. For his Figure-Eight Skirt, he curled fabric around the wearer’s legs to form the number eight, only visible from beneath. His eiderdown-filled quilted white satin jacket forecast the modern-day ski parka.
And then there are his other sumptuous ball gowns from the 1950s, like the hourglass-shaped Diamond Evening Dress; the dark pink silk taffeta Tree Ball Gown with its tulle underskirt; and the Swan, an elegant draped and folded satin gown. Another ball gown is constructed of six-and-a-half-inch-wide, uncut pre-World War I ribbons that James discovered in a Paris flea market, tapered, flared and descending to a pointed hem. All are displayed near an enlargement of Cecil Beaton’s iconic 1948 photograph of eight elegant ladies wearing James ball gowns and lounging on 18th-century chairs.
As for my shoes, I’d select a black silk satin pair with cream point de Venise lace and a metal buckle set with square jet stones, just like the ones Pietro Vantorny made for New York socialite Rita de Acosta Lydig between 1914 and 1919. One of the most exclusive, expensive shoemakers in Paris, Vantorny handcrafted custom-fitted shoes known for the distinctive curve of the inside heel, applying motifs to each shoe in precisely the same pattern. In 1920, he was granted a patent for the looped lacing system he invented to improve fit and comfort, reduce wear on the laces, and make it easier to replace them. Lydig owned more than 300 pairs of Vantorny shoes and stored them in a trunk outfitted with custom-made shoe trees.
High Style has plenty more to covet. Two silk brocade capes with a peacock feather pattern are the creation of Liberty of London textile designer Arthur Silver.
Resortwear from Carolyn Schnurer’s “Flight to India” collection of 1960 were based on textiles she discovered during her travels.
Three elegant hats by Sally Victor include “Mondrian,” inspired by Piet Mondrian’s paintings, and “Matisse,” whose royal blue wool felt appliques recall the paper cutouts that Henri Matisse was so taken with late in his career. The silhouettes of both hats were a stylish complement to the simple sheath dresses of the early 1960s. Victor’s white and magenta wool felt “Airwave” hat was created for Mamie Eisenhower to wear to an American Heart Association luncheon in 1952. Mrs. Eisenhower wore a different version, gray with green lining, to her husband’s presidential inauguration the next year. The hat’s style and name allude to industrial and architectural designs of the period.
And then there are several examples of the imaginative designs of Elsa Schiaparelli, known for her bold prints, opulent embroideries and distinctive ornamental fasteners, like those in the shape of candlesticks and hand mirrors. Three necklaces from her 1938 “Pagan” collection were inspired by depictions of flowers and animals in Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Primavera. One is a clear plastic necklace with brightly colored metal insect ornaments. Another is a wreath of leaves on which a cricket has landed, all constructed of gilt metal with rust and green plastic enameling. Schiaparelli employed the same technique on a necklace of gilt metal with red and green plastic enameling that’s fashioned to look like ivy.
If all of these lovely clothes hung in my closet, the two I’d reach for most often would be two Schiaparelli creations. An evening gown from summer 1937, together with a matching parasol, recalls Schiaparelli’s fondness for butterflies, expressing her belief that although everyone isn’t naturally beautiful, sharp, stylish clothes could transform an ordinary lady into an extraordinary one. A circa 1939-1941 powder-blue cotton summer dress features appliqués of a fabric printed with seed packets; one on the right side functions as a pocket.
The Cincinnati Art Museum is also host to Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, an exhibition on view through January 3, 2016. On loan from the Galleria Borghese in Rome for its first appearance in the United States, this painting of an unknown woman was created by Raphael Sanzio, the famed Renaissance artist, about 1505. The exhibition explores the subject’s possible identity, the meaning of the painting’s iconography, and its stylistic similarities to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It also reveals how the painting was transformed into a portrait of St. Catherine in the mid-17th century and how X-rays in the 1930s helped to restore the painting to its original state.
The painting travels next to San Francisco, where it will be on view from January 19 to April 10, 2016. Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn is an accompanying catalogue with essays by Esther Bell, Linda Wolk-Simon and Mary Shay.
High Style: Twentieth-Century Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection continues through January 24, 2016. On January 16 at 11:30 a.m., join the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for a docent-led tour of the exhibition and a discussion of The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History, by Robin Givhan. The book describes a 1973 fundraiser for the restoration of King Louis XIV’s palace, where five American and five French designers competed to determine the fashion trends of the day
For more, read High Style: Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Jan Glier Reeder; 100 Dresses: The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Harold Koda; 100 Shoes: The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Charles James: Beyond Fashion, by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder; Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography, by Meryle Secrest, and Frocking Life: Searching for Elsa Schiaparelli, by BillyBoy and Jean Drusedow, the director of the Kent State University Museum; and Shocking Life, Schiaparelli’s autobiography.