Arnold Scaasi, John French, 1961. Image courtesy of Ernestine Carter Collection/Fashion Museum - Bath and North East Somerset Council. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
BOSTON, MA.- Arnold Scaasi has dressed them all—from Broadway actresses and Hollywood stars to the ladies who lunch and America’s First Ladies. Epitomizing the “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” his custom-made clothing evokes the height of elegance and craftsmanship from the late 1950s to the present. In celebration of the acclaimed fashion designer and his recent gift to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), of more than 100 outfits (to complement the MFA’s acquisition of his archive), the Museum presents Scaasi: American Couturier, from September 25, 2010, to June 19, 2011, in the Loring Gallery. The exhibition showcases 28 of Scaasi’s fabulous outfits and explore his professional relationship with four women from among his extensive clientele, including Barbra Streisand, for whom he designed the seemingly transparent black tulle pants ensemble that she wore when accepting her 1969 Oscar for Funny Girl. The ensemble, now part of the Museum’s collection, is displayed, along with additional outfits created for the actress. Scaasi: American Couturier is made possible by the David and Roberta Logie Fund for Textile and Fashion Arts and the Loring Textile Gallery Exhibition Fund.
“Scaasi is a fashion legend who has created some of the 20th-century’s most glamorous clothing,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “We are most appreciative of his generous gift of so many splendid ensembles that span his long career, which enhances the MFA’s acquisition of the designer’s drawings and complete archive.”
Scaasi’s richly tailored suits, cocktail dresses, and lavish evening gowns were statement pieces, often made for women with big personalities who lived grand lives, such as celebrities Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore, Sophia Loren, and Barbara Walters, and socialites Brooke Astor, Austine Hearst, Evelyn Lauder, Ivana Trump, and Gayfryd Steinberg. In addition, he created beautiful clothes for women who were suddenly thrown onto the world stage—First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush—whose elegant Scaasi gowns helped them establish a strong public image. (Jacqueline Kennedy also wore outfits by the designer before becoming First Lady.) As well, Scaasi made gowns for debutantes, outfits for artist Louise Nevelson, and even, on one occasion, designed a more modern habit for an order of nuns in Pennsylvania.
“In being a designer of couture clothing, I have had the pleasure of working with many interesting and illustrious women,” said Scaasi. “I hope that my archive will not only be a resource for the study of fashion but, also, be an inspiration for students of fashion design.”
Scaasi: American Couturier focuses on the designer’s opulent creations and his collaborative relationship with his clients, among them: actress Arlene Francis, New Yorker Joetta Norban, celebrity Barbra Streisand, and socialite Gayfryd Steinberg. Scaasi met Francis, a Broadway actress and television star, in 1955, shortly after he opened his custom design studio, and created numerous outfits for her public appearances. For her starring role on Broadway in Once More with Feeling (1958), Scaasi designed a show-stopping silver matelassé evening dress with a red satin evening coat lined in silver matelassé. As he recalls, it delighted the audience when Francis—complimented on the outfit by another character—replied, “Oh, this old thing—I only wear it to the supermarket.” On view in the exhibition, it is one of the more dramatic examples of Scaasi’s trademark: a dress made with the same fabric as the lining of the matching coat.
Scaasi has maintained a devoted following among “society ladies,” many of whom live on Park Avenue and dine at Le Cirque, and who flocked to his Fifth Avenue salon to obtain his latest fashions. Joetta Norban, wife of Joseph Norban, the real-estate investor and part-owner of the nightclub El Morocco, was one of many women whose lifestyle required numerous custom-made outfits for important occasions. For her position as chair of the 1966 Peacock Ball in New York, Norban wore an extravagant Scaasi ensemble—a turquoise dress and matching capelet completely beaded in turquoise and coral—that evoked the charity ball’s theme. The outfit, known as “Little Egypt,” illustrates the designer’s extraordinary workmanship. Also included in the exhibition is a short black tulle dress covered in bow knots (1966) that Scaasi made for Norban. He created a similar version for actress Natalie Wood, who declared it “the sexiest dress ever!”
Scaasi’s 30-year working relationship with Barbra Streisand began shortly after he first saw her perform at a small downtown nightclub in New York City in 1963, and the association continued through countless outfits made for Streisand’s personal wardrobe, nightclub performances, and appearances at Hollywood premieres and the Academy Awards. Scaasi: American Couturier features outfits designed for the star (with several design sketches), including a bold, black-and-yellow zig-zag-patterned “motorcycle outfit” created for Streisand’s movie musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970).
In the 1970s through 1990s, as the influence of the 1960s counter-culture waned and opulence came back into fashion, Scaasi’s designs epitomized the extravagance of high society, especially during the Reagan era. Among the Nouvelle Society of New York was Gayfryd Steinberg, wife of billionaire financier Saul Steinberg, who commissioned many ensembles. Twelve of these, which she recently gave to the Museum, are featured, including a dramatic strapless gown of black, white, and grey organza petals, and a brilliant yellow satin ball gown, along with several design drawings.
“As one of the few American designers to specialize in custom-made clothing during the later part of the 20th century, Scaasi represents a true American couturier. The addition of his clothing and archive has taken the MFA’s collection of 20th-century fashion to a new level,” said Pamela Parmal, MFA’s David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts.
Born Arnold Isaacs on May 8, 1930, the Montreal native studied at the prestigious Cotnoir-Capponi School of Design in Montreal and the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne in Paris, where he apprenticed at the House of Paquin before moving to New York City to work with renowned designer Charles James (1953–54). Shortly thereafter, “Isaacs” was turned backwards and became “Scaasi.” He gained recognition for his designs, and in 1955, the December cover of Vogue pictured a coat he designed for Dressmaker Casuals (a Seventh Avenue manufacturer), creating the buzz that helped Scaasi launch his ready-to-wear line the following year. In 1958, the designer won the prestigious Coty Fashion critics Award and his success was assured. In 1964, he opened his couture salon.
Scaasi mastered draping and created refined silhouettes that are intricately constructed, averaging approximately 120 working hours for each outfit and involving at least three craftswomen They are made of luxurious, flamboyant, expensive fabrics and furs, and feature asymmetrical necklines, pouffed sleeves, and billowy skirts in a wide range of bright colors. Fur-trimmed gowns, feather-lined coats over dresses of feathers, and jewel-encrusted dresses are some of the extraordinary confections that bear the SCAASI label.
Scaasi has received numerous honors during his long and successful career. In addition to the Coty Fashion Critics Award (1958), they include the Neiman Marcus Award (1959), three Chicago Gold Coast Awards (early 1960s), The Council of Fashion Designer of America (CFDA) Award for creative excellence (1987), and its highest honor, The CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award (1997). In addition, he received the National Arts Club’s Gold Medal of Fashion (2006), and The Landmarks Conservancy made Scaasi a Living Landmark of New York City. Major retrospectives have been presented at The New York Historical Society, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His creations were included in numerous group exhibitions at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Scaasi has documented his unique experiences with famous women in his books Scaasi: A Cut Above (written with Bernadine Morris) (Rizzolli, 1996), and Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed!) (Scribner, New York, 2004). He continues to design costume jewelry featured on the Home Shopping Network.
Detail of Woman’s ensemble in two parts (dress) Designed by: Arnold Scaasi (American, born in 1930), Worn by: Arlene Francis (American, 1907–2001), Worn by: Patricia Munsel (American, born in 1925). Group shot: 2009.4035.1 2. American, 1958. Silk plain weave, printed; silk plain weave; silk satin weave; tulle; metal. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Arnold Scaasi Collection Gift of Arnold Scaasi. Made possible through the generous support of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, anonymous donors, Penny and Jeff Vinik, Lynne and Mark Rickabaugh, Jane and Robert Burke, Carol Wall, Mrs. I. W. Colburn, Megan O'Block, Lorraine Bressler, and Daria Petrilli Eckert © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.