Fashion exhibitions at major museums are relatively rare because, as Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Gary Tinterow explains, it's especially hard to make clothes on mannequins come alive. But after Lynn Wyatt saw a retrospective of the work of legendary designer Oscar de la Renta at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco last year, she urged Tinterow to go see it for himself, with the hope that it would come to Houston.
He did. And it has.
The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta, at the MFAH through January 28, 2018, includes many of the looks that were in the San Francisco exhibition along with additional showstoppers only in Houston. Among the rare pieces on display are Amal Clooney's wedding gown — the last bridal gown de la Renta designed before his death in 2014, along with contributions from the closets of famous Texans, Hollywood celebs, and pieces from the MFAH archives. The styles are featured in tableaus of artwork, antiques, and other decorative art pieces from the museum's extensive collection.
Of the 70-plus pieces in the exhibition, which has been drawing mammoth crowds, here are 17 of our favorites.
The first room of the exhibition is a tribute to the Spanish influence of de la Renta designs and showcases several "must-see" gowns. At 18, de la Renta left his native Dominican Republic to study art at The Academy of San Fernando in Madrid and secured an internship with Spain's greatest couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga.
"Oscar was inspired by Spain all of his life," said André Leon Talley, who curated the exhibition. "You see all the great moments of Spain when he worked with Balenciaga; the memories of youth in bull rings and with the flamenco dancers."
A highlight of the first room is the red ruffled gown from the Oscar de la Renta resort 2013 collection that Beyoncé wore on the cover of Vogue magazine in March 2013.
The room features a number of striking ruffled gowns, accented with historic mantillas and Spanish-style hats amid such striking art as an oil painting of Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain, in 1605 by the Spanish artist, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz.
"That's the imaginative fantasy of it," said André Leon Talley. "I learned from the master, Diana Vreeland ... it's all about trying to create the narrative around the clothes."
One of Talley's favorite looks is a custom evening ensemble designed by de la Renta for Mica Ertegun to celebrate her 40th anniversary with record mogul Ahmet Ertegun in 2001.
She planned a dinner on the roof of New York's St. Regis Hotel and told Talley she wanted to have "something special" made by de le Renta. "But I don't want it to be a ball gown because everyone wears a ball gown. I only like shirts and skirts," she said.
"She went to Oscar and he sketched out that beautiful skirt," Talley recalls. "It's one of my favorite things in the collection. The way the ruffles move in that skirt. Even still, the feeling is that it's very grand and dramatic. When she walks, the ruffles make a musical noise, which I think is very unique. It looks as fresh as it was in 2001."
"You feel like dancing. That is what this room is meant to be about: Flamenco, bull rings, bullfights, the Vogue cover."
Depending on the lighting, Mica Ertegun's ruffled skirt can appear to be burgundy or bright red.
André Leon Talley, right, who was a close friend of Oscar de la Renta, curated the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as well as the retrospective at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.
In 1993, Oscar de la Renta became the first American designer to take over at a Paris fashion house when he joined Balmain. His design aesthetic fit right in with the French high fashion label with its history of classic silhouettes and painstaking detail. After studying under Balenciaga in Madrid, de la Renta was Antonio Castillo's assistant at Lanvin in Paris before striking out his own in New York in 1966, so he understood haute couture fashion.
A stellar example of his work at Balmain is this velvet evening gown with silk embroidery and appliqué, which was part of the 1999-2000 collection.
Two classic looks by Oscar de la Renta for Balmain are featured in a large room with the designer's styles inspired by his fascination with Russia, the Middle East and the Far East. Right, Lynn Wyatt's wool crepe navy blue day suit with white mother of pearl buttons, circa 2000, and, middle, Vogue editor Anna Wintour's wool paisley print coat with sable collar from the 1997-98 collection.
On the far right wall (behind glass), a silk charmeuse, silk embroidery, and sable vest from the collection of Elyse Lanier.
The Baroness Sandra di Portanova was known for her sense of style, which is showcased in an Oscar de la Renta long-sleeve dark blue velvet evening gown with embellishment of paste gems, metallic embroidery, bugle beads, faux pearls, metalic coil and metallic ribbon at the wrist and arm. The gown, which de la Renta created in 1990, was given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston by her brother after her death in 2000.
The gown, which is at the right of this photo, is flanked by a pair of lacquered Chinese Coromandel screens, 1740-1750, from the museum's Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson, III.
Ornate detail at the wrist and arm of an Oscar de la Renta gown owned and worn by the Baroness Sandra di Portanova.
Imperial Russia was a recurring theme in Oscar de le Renta collections. Center, a brocade coat trimmed in fur worn by Elyse Lanier.
Oscar de la Renta incorporated his opulent style with over-the-top-'80s trends in this silk, satin, and velvet gown with mutton sleeves, bugle beads and faux pearls worn by Carolyn Farb.
Among the most breathtaking looks in the exhibition is the bridal gown that de la Renta designed for Amal Clooney when she married George Clooney in Venice in 2014.
Talley says that organizers of the San Francisco exhibit reached out to Amal Clooney, but she wasn't ready to have it displayed at the time. "But since she had the children, someone at Oscar de la Renta contacted her through her assistant, and she said yes (to having it displayed in Houston). So the dress was sent. (MFAH curator for modern and contemporary arts and design) Cindi (Strauss) went to get the dress in New York and brought it down. It had to be hand carried. She really wanted to protect the dress. We always wanted the dress (for the exhibition) because it was Oscar's last wedding dress."
Strauss also worked with Talley to select pieces from the extensive MFAH collection of decorative arts and artwork to accent the clothing in the exhibition. "It's all very well chosen because the fine arts museum in Houston is very elegant and has a fine collection of paintings. I was quite surprised by the quality of things," Talley said.
The Clooney gown, right, is paired with the wedding gown that de la Renta designed for his stepdaugher, Eliza, when she married Alex Bolen in 1998.
A closer view of Eliza Bolen's wedding gown.
Dr. Yvonne Cormier's pink day dress with floral embroidery, right, sets the tone in the exhibition's Garden Room. When she thinks of de la Renta, "timeless and elegance comes to mind," she says in the audio tour. "I've had some pieces that I've owned for over 10 years and they're still in style today."
The final room of the exhibition is dedicated to icons. It includes the sparkly silk tulle and metal sequined embroidered gown, right, that de le Renta created for Allison Sarofim to wear to her first Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century," in 2004. "It was my first big fashion moment," Sarofim recalls.
In the background are gowns worn by seven icons, including Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift lent the exhibition the custom pink evening gown in silk organza, silk, sequin, and bead embroidery and silk organza applique that she wore to the "Charles James Beyond Fashion" Costume Institute Gala in 2014.
On display in the icons room is the gown that Oscar de la Renta designed for Penelope Cruz for the "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011.
Penelope Cruz appeared with Oscar de la Renta in the gown he designed for her to wear at the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lynn Wyatt wore this black silk faille and silk taffeta gown from the Oscar de la Renta resort 2010 collection when she was photographed for an article in Harper's Bazaar magazine in October 2011.
Also on display in the icons room is a gold cardigan jacket and long sequin skirt embellished with a teal satin ribbon belt that Oscar de la Renta designed for Laura Bush when she was first lady. She wore it several times, including at a state dinner, a White House Christmas celebration, and for an official portrait. It's one of the 54 ensembles that de la Renta designed for Bush.
To the left in this photo are two ensembles worn by Lynn Wyatt: the black gown previously mentioned — "I had a lot of fun dancing in it," Wyatt recalls — and a tunic and pants ensemble of wool, silk and Lurex brocade, gallooon, metal, and rhinestone banding from the Oscar de la Renta 1968 collection. Wyatt says that she gave it to the Oscar de la Renta archives but wishes she had it back "because I could be wearing it right now. It's timeless."
The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through January 28, 2018. For tickets or more information, click here.