Exhibit Showcases Famous Designers’ Dance Fashions

October 13, 2010

I arrived at Lincoln Center early, making my way past the plaza’s iconic fountain and heading for the revolving glass doors of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Tucked between NYC’s famous Metropolitan Opera House and Lincoln Center Theater, the library’s Oenslager Gallery is the new home of “On Stage in Fashion: Design for Theater, Opera, and Dance” until January 22. DS was invited to preview the exhibit before its official opening tonight, and I couldn’t wait to get a sneak peek.


Inside the library, the exhibit’s co-curators, Phyllis Magidson and Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, spoke briefly about the concept of the exhibit. They explained that before there were runways and supermodels, actors and dancers modeled top designers’ latest creations during performances. Intrigued, I entered the Oenslager Gallery to take a look at some of the costumes.


Arranged by era, the exhibit begins with costumes from the 1910s and ’20s and progresses to elaborate outfits worn on NYC stages just months ago! I could have spent hours perusing the sketches, photographs and actual outfits worn by stage stars of decades past. They practically had to tear me away from a beautiful white wedding gown designed by Mainbocher for the original production of The Sound of Music. I learned that Mary Martin, who originated the role of Maria von Trapp in 1959, insisted that Mainbocher design the stunning dress as well as all of her other costumes for the show.


After ogling Mary Martin’s stage attire for far too long, I finally made it to the portion of the exhibit entirely devoted to dance. It was surreal to see the names of fashion’s elite alongside some of my favorite dance companies and choreographers. For example, I had no idea that Calvin Klein’s chic lines collided with Martha Graham’s modern moves when he designed ensembles for some of her late works. In addition to mannequin displays of original costumes by designers such as Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta, the dance-focused portion of  “On Stage in Fashion” also includes countless photographs and sketches of dancewear couture of decades past.


I especially loved Christian La Croix’s playful design for a 1988 revival of Leonide Massine’s Gaîté Parisienne at American Ballet Theatre. Worn by the Glove Seller character, the striped black and pink bodice ends in a short, full skirt with the outline of long black gloves extending from the waist. An edgy hot-pink tutu designed by Isaac Mizrahi for Mark Morris’ 2001 piece Gong was another favorite, along with Joe Eula’s simple salmon-colored dress created in 1969 for Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. I couldn’t help but fantasize about what it would be like to dance in such gorgeous garb.


While I may not have been able to try on the tutus and tunics myself, I could see how they looked on stage thanks to the television screens along the back wall of the gallery. The six screens show excerpts from some of the pieces for which the featured costumes were designed, danced by companies such as Parsons Dance and Dance Theater of Harlem. It amazed me how different—and even more glorious—the outfits appeared on moving bodies. Not wanting to miss anything, I spent a little bit of time watching each screen and became so entranced a security guard kindly approached me and asked me to leave so that he could lock the gallery!


Whether you’re a seasoned fashionista or a couture novice, “On Stage in Fashion” is definitely worth a visit. Catch the exhibit during regular library hours from October 14, 2010 until January 22, 2011 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.