We’re sitting on a velvet ottoman in a practically pitch-black gallery at FIT and, whatever it is, we’re pretty sure It is right up there in front of us, in the form of a dipping, swirling dancer named Irene Castle. Castle, practically weightless in layers of pale chiffon and with her famous bobbed hair concealed under a Dutch-girl hat that one suspects she alone could get away with, is cake-walking her heart out in a 1915 movie called The Whirl of Life.
Excerpts of the film are screened in a continuous loop at FIT, in conjunction with “Designing the It Girl: Lucile and Her Style,” a show dedicated to the art and life of the once-legendary Lucile, who designed Castle’s gossamer frocks along with exotic ensembles for various other early-20th-century celebutantes.
Castle herself was the undisputed It girl of the World War One era, and is generally held responsible for convincing a generation of women to lose their Edwardian locks; Lucile (1863-1935) in addition to being a hot designer, was also a sort of nascent lifestyle guru, coaching nouveau riche debs in the acquisition of proper deportment, social graces, and the always hard to pin down “personal style.” If they were really apt pupils, Lucile’s charges might aspire to what her sister, the wildly popular novelist Elinor Glyn, termed “It” a coinage that has come down to us unchanged, in all its frisky glory, almost 100 years later.
This Lucile had quite a history: She went from cutting out patterns on her dining room table to designing couture to surviving the Titanic to becoming Lady Duff Gordon to making clothes for the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. Her retrospective is one of three fashion exhibits currently at FIT, and for a proto-flapper like us, it’s perfect heaven.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the other two shows. Downstairs, a large room is devoted to “Glamour: Fashion, Film, Fantasy”: a trove of evening gowns from a 1755 robe la francaise to a startlingly accomplished frock by the bohemian As Four, circa 2003. A fair number of garments have Hollywood provenances, and it’s a joy to see Harlow’s skin-tight satin from Bombshell and even giddier to behold the notorious, nearly transparent bell-bottomed Scaasi get-up Streisand wore to accept her Oscar in 1965. The exhibit is sponsored by Target, which at first seems hardly synonymous with glamour, but then again, if Lady Duff Gordon can end up with Sears, why not?
The third show is devoted to the late German illustrator-photographer Rico Puhlmann, and begins with a wealth of his fashion drawings done for Berlin newspapers in the 1950s, when the German fashion industry was slowly reviving. Later, Puhlmann moved to the States and for years was responsible for the look of Harper’s Bazaar. His most riveting works are his depictions of women sporting trapeze coats and pillbox hats, posing elegantly in front of the Brandenburg Gate or sauntering along the Seine. Puhlmann’s pictures from the 1960s are especially poignant: For him, this is not an era of matted hair and gypsy velvet, it’s a decade of Jackie O. and sleek, spare tent dresses, which in retrospect seems as lost and elusive as Lucile’s brand of glamour.