Behind the scenes: Installing “Oscar de la Renta: Five Decades of Style” at the George W. Bush Presidential Center

by | Fashion, Features

Inside and underneath the Bush Center’s time-traveling Oscar de la Renta exhibit

photographs by DANIEL DRIENSKY

An operation is underway. A studious-looking man wearing glasses and a long beige lab coat carefully handles a mass of golden tulle and sequins, lifting it gently off the floor and over the head of an elegant, white-lacquer mannequin. Slowly, he pulls the dress over the mannequin’s petite shoulders, dressing her attentively — nipping the tulle here, pinning it there — as if performing a highly calculated surgery where each move is a matter of life or death. The man in question — purse-lipped, with his hair perfectly parted and a perfectionist air about him — is Glenn Petersen, a conservator at the renowned Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The fiberglass woman he is dressing is carefully posed on a platform in an exhibition gallery at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. The tulle-and-sequin confection in his gentle hands? Designed by Oscar de la Renta for the actress Sarah Jessica Parker.

At the time of the fitting, in mid-July, the opening of “Oscar de la Renta: Five Decades of Style” was in exactly one week. Petersen and fashion curators Molly Sorkin and Jennifer Park were well aware of the limited time they had to dress 63 similar mannequins in equally meticulous fashion. “It isn’t a matter of just dropping a dress on the mannequin,” Sorkin said. “It is the job of the dresser to make the clothing come alive by building understructures that mold and shape the mannequins’ bodies to fit the garments and make them each look their best.” Sorkin and her colleagues employ precise methods during the installation of a fashion exhibition such as de la Renta’s, on view through October 5. “Mannequins are rigid structures with idealized measurements,” she said, “that can be unforgiving to clothes that have been worn by real women.” In this case, the real women are a rather high-profile group: Vogue magazine editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, actress Anne Hathaway, Houston socialite Lynn Wyatt and Fort Worth socialite and philanthropist Mercedes Bass, the exhibit’s underwriter.

The process of fitting and sculpting a gown onto an inanimate form requires hours. Foam, crumpled tissue paper, sewing pins and wires are used to pad and shape a stiff mannequin into something with a more lifelike shape. Proportions and fit become even more important when the exhibit is a retrospective, displaying clothing that spans decades and trends. A silhouette from the 1980s, for example — cinched waist, big bouffant shoulders — must be made to look as if it were worn during that era. It can’t be similar to the A-line shape created by a loose-fitting caftan of the 1960s. A walk through the de la Renta show is a bit like glamorous time-traveling, and none of the labor over many months — arranging first-class shipping of the gowns from all over the globe, the painstaking fittings, the purposeful gallery lighting — is apparent. Special walls have been erected and painted to highlight the clothes displayed in front of them: fuchsia, black, sunflower yellow. The dozens of cardboard shipping boxes, bubble wrap, plastic wrap, scissors, painter’s tape and sewing kits that littered the floor have disappeared. What remains is a magnificent showcase, beautifully lighted, without one hint of the work it all required.

To the naked eye, it is all about the clothes. De la Renta, 82, began his career working for the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga before launching his own New York–based line in 1967, still headquartered there today. He has explored myriad styles and inspiration and the exhibit’s six sections illustrate his strongest: the art, culture and dress of Spain; couture craftsmanship; global influences; the celebrity-laden red carpet; dressing first ladies, including Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush; and gardens. It is in the latter that some of de la Renta’s most over-the-top dresses are on display, including many loaned by Bass herself.

During their first view of the finished exhibit, Bush and Bass toured with Oscar de la Renta CEO Alex Bolen. “There are so many flowers,” said Bush. “Well, look at what Mercedes has on now,” she said, motioning to the floral chiffon dress — indeed, by de la Renta — Bass was wearing that afternoon. “If Oscar was there,” said Bass in reply, about the many glittery events she has attended, “I was in an Oscar.” She laughed, then continued: “Even if Oscar wasn’t there, I was in an Oscar.” A hush overtook the gallery as Bass, Bush and Bolen looked around. The realization that all of the clothing in the exhibit was once lived in (and loved) by real people became almost overwhelming. Each dress, suit and gown — lighted to perfection, Sorkin said, “to emphasize the significant features of each garment, to highlight pattern, texture and embellishment” — is a representation of the highly personal relationship that exists between its owner and de la Renta. “Meeting Oscar,” said Bass, “is just meeting a whole world of talent, brilliance, warmth, love, friendship. He loves the world in which he lives and he has created it for himself — and he shares it with all his friends and all his admirers.”