Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) Opens Scaasi: American Couturier

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 will present Scaasi: American Couturier, from September 25, 2010, to June 19, 2011, in the Loring Gallery.

The exhibition will showcase 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, will be 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 will focus 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.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its encyclopedic collection, which includes an estimated 450,000 objects. The Museum’s collection is made up of: Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.; Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 9:45 p.m.

Image: 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.

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