You Are Reading
Eclectic Wonders: Inside the Costume Institute’s New Exhibition, “In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection”

Eclectic Wonders: Inside the Costume Institute’s New Exhibition, “In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection”

The Costume Institute’s new exhibition, “In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection,” highlights a remarkable treasury of fashion history assembled by the irrepressible collector over the past six decades or so. The 80 pieces on exhibition represent part of a promised gift to the museum of 165 garments or accessories from Schreier’s legendary collection, which numbers several thousand pieces.

In the exhibition’s handsome accompanying catalogue, the museum’s director Max Hollein describes Schreier as “a true pioneer in the field…Her intention,” he notes, “was always to put together a trove of high fashion, not as a wardrobe but as an appreciation of a form of creative expression.”

The exhibition, curated by the department’s Associate Curator Jessica Regan, has been designed by movie imagists Shane Valentino and Nathan Crowley to subtly evoke the glamour of Detroit’s art deco architecture and the silver screen movies that first ignited the collector’s passion for fashion, and continue to intoxicate her. “The individual objects are so strong,” Regan notes, that these elements have been pared down to serve as a foil to the inherent drama of the clothes.

As an impressionable child, Schreier was introduced to fashion through her father Edward Miller, a furrier at the Detroit outpost of Russeks Department Store, owned by the parents of the photographer Diane Arbus. She admired the clothes of the well-heeled clients so much that they would eventually bring in their cast-offs for her to play with. According to Schreier, however, she never saw these as pieces with which to play dress-up. “You wouldn’t put your Picasso on your back, would you?” is her riposte to those who question why, to this day, she was never tempted to wear the pieces herself.

The opening section of the exhibition was inspired by Schreier’s personal quest. As Regan, “when she was first starting out as a collector she didn’t know very much about fashion history and she was just responding to the formal qualities of what she saw. She was looking for beauty and that’s what inspired her.”

“Glamour and fun” are the watchwords for Schreier’s collecting and Regan explains that Schreier is drawn to a sense of drama. “I think that that element is something that was shaped very early on by watching films of the golden age of Hollywood —she was just really captivated by the glamour of film costume and that’s something that stayed with her and that she has sought out in her own collecting.” Schreier herself says, “my main criterion is whether the piece meets the standard of fashion as art.”

Sandy Schreier in 1998

As a fellow collector myself it has always been fascinating to me seeing the sort of pieces that the larger than life Schreier was drawn to at auctions we have shopped together—generally very emphatic, entrance-making clothes. She will seek out a piece that she can characterize as a “singer and a dancer.” Like any great collector’s collection, it ultimately reveals Schreier herself. “I am the collection,” Schreier has said, “and the collection, in turn, is me. We are joined at the hip.”

I knew of her collection by reputation, but when I was finally invited to visit Schreier at home in a suburb of Detroit— to which, along with her earlier family house, such designers as Zandra Rhodes, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Isaac Mizrahi, Thea Porter, and Stephen Jones have all beaten a path—I was amazed by the eclectic wonders that she had been quietly assembling through the decades and graciously pulled from her storage to show me.

I was also, it must be admitted, deeply envious of the unexpected possibilities that Detroit itself had presented for Schreier through the decades. As a young woman with a passion for historic fashion in the 1960s, Schreier was ideally placed to source clothing from the wardrobes and estates of the wives of the automotive titans who were often legendary clients of the Paris haute couture and the highest end of American custom designers. Women like the extravagant, wasp-waisted Elizabeth Parke Firestone who shopped extensively with such designers as Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga and who ordered her tiny custom evening shoes—made to match the dress—several dainty pairs at a time because her husband was a clumsy dancer. (Her lady’s maid was positioned behind the ballroom door, poised in readiness with a replacement pair, should his shoe have crushed and soiled his wife’s.) Schreier was called in to help appraise the clothes in Firestone’s estate—thousands of couture garments and accessories—and ultimately acquired some treasures for herself, which are now showcased at the museum. As Regan notes, Schreier “did make a lot of really incredible finds because she was looking in a place at a time when there wasn’t a great deal of competition from collectors and so she preserved a certain number of pieces that likely would not have been preserved had she not found them.” Schreier describes herself as a “fashion savior.”

A dress by Roberto Rojas (American, born 1940)

Childhood visits to the Detroit Institute of Arts shaped Schreier’s interest in the textiles she saw depicted by the great artists. That taste for what Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s Wendy Yu Curator in Charge, describes as “really bold and rich patterning … in the form of surface embellishment or inventive textile design,” is now reflected in Schreier’s collection—particularly in clothing by her friend Zandra Rhodes (whom she met through Vidal Sassoon for whom she once modeled), the great British fantasy fashion and print designer, as well as in stellar examples of the work of Mariano Fortuny (the Spanish born designer who made his reputation in Venice producing Renaissance-inspired velvet coats and cloaks, and fabled pleated Delphos dresses), and of the Roman-born Maria Monaci Gallenga, who worked in a similarly historicist vernacular.

Schreier has declared her favorite period to be the interwar years, and, as Regan avers, “her pieces of the ’20s and ’30s are really extraordinary examples of the exceptional handwork of the metiers working at their height before the Second World War.” There are pieces by the Boué Soeurs, for instance, famed in the 1920s for their delicate lingerie and evening dresses often trimmed with ribbon work flowers, and a marvelous 1936 dress blooming with giant chiffon poppies designed by the flamboyant Spanish-born Ana de Pombo for the storied house of Paquin that forms a perfect sister with a Gabrielle Chanel dress from a similar period which is printed and trimmed with vibrant dahlias.

A view of “L’Esprit Nouveau: The Interwar Era,” one of the show’s four sections

Schreier’s relationship with the Costume Institute began when the late Richard Martin and retired curator Harold Koda ran the department. She lent to the 1993 exhibition “Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style,” and through the years pieces from her collection have been showcased in such exhibitions as “Adrian: American Glamour,” “Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set,” “Goddess,” “Splash!” (Schreier has an extensive collection of swimwear), “Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion,” “Poiret: King of Fashion,” and “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”

Two years ago, as Regan explains, Schreier “let us know that she was interested in making a big gift from her collection.”

As a result, Bolton, Regan, and their team made several trips to Schreier’s home, a house that belies its conventional exterior to reveal a treasury of cabinets filled with precious fragrance bottles set against dark, spice colored walls, and a living room that, as I discovered, is often hidden by rolling racks and dress boxes brought from Schreier’s storage facility. The collector’s late husband, the affable lawyer Sherwin, was wryly indulgent of his wife’s collecting mania and auction extravagances. Their four children must have learned to live with their mother’s other great passion.

“We had some sense of her holdings,” says Regan, who had the thrilling task of looking at this ever-changing landscape of iconic fashion (by her reckoning, several hundred pieces on each visit), “but we certainly didn’t understand the full extent. It was really extraordinary getting to see all of these pieces that we didn’t know she had.”

Alongside works by such iconic names as Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel, Fortuny, Gernreich, Balmain, and Poiret, the museum was delighted to acquire works by lesser known or short-lived design houses that were little—or not at all—represented in the museum’s collections. These include Madeleine et Madeleine, a Parisian couture house responsible for a sensational c. 1923 dress that Schreier acquired in the 1960s from the estate of Matilda Dodge Wilson, the widow of John Francis Dodge of the Dodge Motor Company. The dress evokes a silver screen vision of Ancient Egypt, its coral and old gold metallic tissue fabric woven with the stylized ibises that are repeated in the embroidery motif, and reflects the Egyptomania that swept the fashionable world following the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb complex in the Valley of the Kings. The museum was able to find documents relating to a tea gown by Jessie Franklin Turner, the American custom designer who specialized in these glamorous entertaining-at-home garments, as they own an archive of her scrapbooks.

Dress, Madeleine & Madeleine (French, 1919–26), ca. 1923; Promised gift of Sandy Schreier

“We were really excited to see these kind of rare examples,” explains Regan, “that really filled gaps for us and that have never been exhibited before.” Other pieces were selected because of their resonance with existing museum objects, including a beautiful 1940s evening dress of shadowy black net designed by the enigmatic Russian-born, New York-based couturier Valentina Schlee, a great friend, then loathed love rival of Greta Garbo whom she greatly resembled. For Andrew Bolton, this piece evokes a Spring 2001 Tom Ford for Gucci dress recently acquired by the museum. A Charles James gown from his ill-fated collaboration with the manufacturer Samuel Winston, meanwhile, is a ready-to-wear interpretation of his Swan gown, a dress in the museum’s extensive holdings of this designer.

There are also many pieces that Regan describes as “fun and playful and very much indicative of Sandy’s personality.” The theme of the final room in the exhibition— “The Message is the Medium”—reflects Schreier’s passion for antic wit in dress, or “fashions that really speak to the narrative potential of the medium,” and as Bolton explains, “the storytelling ability of fashion designers who are engaging their viewers and wearers with a sense of humor and playfulness, which is something that Sandy really appreciates.” This section includes such sartorial amusements as Gilbert Adrian’s signature broad shouldered evening gowns printed with gamboling monkeys, or with kittens complete with three dimensional gingham bows; a Patrick Kelly nail-print velveteen suit that fastens with real metal nails; a Christian Francis Roth ‘Breakfast’ suit with fried egg appliqué and the yellow ‘yolk’ as buttons; and a sensational 1984 Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé dress of black crepe embroidered on the front by Lesage with a trompe l’oeil depicting another dress suspended from it’s hanger. This spirit of whimsy and humor is also on abundant display in the accessories from the collection, including a handbag-shaped hat by Isaac Mizrahi and Karl Lagerfeld collaborations with the jeweler Ugo Correani for Chloé, including rings and brooches shaped like lipstick bullets. These represent exciting additions to the museum’s collections, and keenly reveal the vivid personality and spirit of the ageless Schreier herself.

“In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection,” runs from November 27th 2019 to May 17th 2020 at Anna Wintour Costume Center of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.