When the conversation turns to Hollywood fashion icons, the same examples come up again and again: Audrey Hepburn in her stripy tops and ballet flats, Katharine Hepburn in her town-and-country tweed pants. They were great women, in great clothes, but our rush to reduce whole lifetimes of style down to a clickable shopping list only diminishes them. If this is what we do to icons, no wonder the word has become meaningless.
So let’s not call Lauren Bacall, who died last August at age 89, a Hollywood fashion icon. There really is no convenient label for her, as you can see at “Lauren Bacall: The Look,” a small but rigorously curated exhibit on display at the Museum at FIT through April 4. The sultry, flirty Bacall who captivated filmgoers in Howard Hawks’s 1944 To Have and Have Not was staggeringly young, just twenty at the time. But the garments in “The Look” all date to the 1960s and early ’70s, by which time Bacall was in her forties. These are grown-up clothes, made for a woman who preferred simple, deft lines rendered in luxe fabrics — the New York–based designer Norman Norell was a favorite, and the show includes a softly architectural raspberry wool Norell coat, all business except for the pink rhinestone-encrusted buttons marching down the front, that Bacall wore in the 1964 film Sex and the Single Girl. But even in her forties, Bacall was not immune to the charms of a good Pierre Cardin minidress: The one on display here is hot-candy pink and molded out of a stiff, neoprene-looking fabric known as “Cardine.” Bacall once said, as the accompanying placard tells us, “Today’s well-dressed woman can travel with her dress in a paper bag if it’s made of Cardine.”
A black silk jersey gown, by Marc Bohan of Dior, whose sleeves end in gauntlets of ostrich feathers; a paisley silk Yves Saint Laurent wrap dress that looks as fluid as a waterfall; a Norell “subway coat” made of the softest-looking camel-colored wool, but hiding a secret surprise inside, a lining stitched with rows and rows of sequins: This isn’t just expensive good taste on display — it’s a testament to the idea of dressing with vision and imagination (and, of course, knowing how to show off a lithe, killer figure). “The Look” includes only about a dozen garments, plus some archival print and video materials, but you’ll still walk away with a strong sense of the woman who gave life to these clothes. Bacall donated some 700 items to FIT between 1968 and 1986. That means, somewhere, there’s much, much more, an Ali Baba’s cave of wonders that were chosen with an eye toward both practicality and luxury. As fashion role models, the Hepburns, both Audrey and Katharine, are tough acts to follow if you’re not a tiny gamine or a no-nonsense, long-legged New Englander. Bacall’s look sets a more realistic example: You just need to be a grown-up.