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How Dallas Saved Fashion History

The most fabulous closet in North Texas holds 20,000 irreplaceable pieces of our past.
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Elizabeth Lavin

How Dallas Saved Fashion History

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One of the most valuable fashion collections in the nation is housed inside a dusty orange building in Denton, next to the counseling office at the University of North Texas. The structure is little more than 4,500 square feet of concrete and cold air, but its cultural cachet is irreplaceable. The Texas Fashion Collection contains everything from 18th-century coats to modern-day Alexander McQueen dresses, maternity gear to streetwear, couture treasures to home-ec experiments. There are bridal gowns, lingerie, and ceremonial ensembles from indigenous cultures. Accessories include nearly 1,400 pairs of shoes, 2,500 hats, and 750 handbags. Altogether, there are almost 20,000 pieces.

The trove of designer labels includes 387 designs by Hubert Givenchy, 301 by Oscar de la Renta, 151 from the House of Dior, and an impressive 340 by Cristobal Balenciaga. It is believed to be the largest holding of the designer’s work in the world aside from Balenciaga’s own archive.

The seeds of the collection were planted by the Marcus brothers—Stanley, Edward, Lawrence, and Herbert Jr.—who began gathering 20th-century styles, some say, in the late 1930s. They named it in honor of their aunt, Carrie Marcus Neiman, upon her death in 1953. She co-founded Neiman Marcus with their father and had donated pieces from her wardrobe. The brothers made a point of keeping the collection in Dallas, though offers came to take it east. It eventually was put in the care of the Dallas Fashion Group, which bestowed what was then a few thousand garments to UNT’s fashion design program in 1972 to serve as a resource for its students. It has since become a resource for artists, authors, and curators near and far.

Vogue’s Hamish Bowles has visited. So has Akiko Fukai, curator of Japan’s famed Kyoto Costume Institute. André Leon Talley borrowed pieces when he was putting together the posthumous Oscar de la Renta exhibition, as did the Kimbell Art Museum for last year’s blockbuster “Balenciaga in Black.” The Dallas Embroidery Guild recently took a tour, and designers from Dickies stopped by to study denim styles over the decades. Last year, about 3,500 people accessed the collection for one reason or another.

annette becker director of fashion UNT
Bald Ambition: Annette Becker, the director of the collection, started out pursuing an engineering degree before she was bitten by the fashion bug. One of her goals is to ensure that as the collection grows, so does the diversity of the designers represented.

It is a collection so precious that it is guarded by three levels of locks and alarms, requires UV-filtering lights, and has an HVAC system that keeps the atmosphere at a crisp 60 to 65 degrees and 50 percent humidity for preservation purposes. New additions must first spend up to a week in a freezer to kill any pests. “A moth could be devastating in here,” says Annette Becker, the director of the collection.

Becker is the TFC’s sole full-time staff member. Working among the racks of designer labels and rare garments is far afield from her upbringing in a western Kansas town of 250, where her parents still work as farmers. She started out pursuing a more sensible engineering degree from the University of Kansas, but her interests strayed when she found herself in a fashion history class. “I was hooked from the first five minutes,” she says.

“The day I moved to Denton, I came to the TFC to start volunteering before I even had a bed in my apartment.”

Becker considered several places to pursue a graduate degree in the niche field of fashion history, including New York University’s Costume Studies program and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, which, she says, is “arguably the best program in the world for fashion history.” She ended up in Denton. Funding and the faculty at the University of North Texas were factors, but a big draw was access to the Texas Fashion Collection. “In fact, the day I moved to Denton, I came to the TFC to start volunteering before I even had a bed in my apartment,” she says.

Now, as the collection’s shepherd, she is responsible for guiding it in a more thoughtful direction. She takes great care, for example, to represent more than just white European men when curating an exhibition by making sure that half of the pieces were designed by women and 20 percent by people of color. Similarly, as the collection grows, she is looking for a diversity of designers that is more reflective of UNT’s multicultural student body. “It’s wonderful that we have such a rich Balenciaga collection, because people, especially our students, would never have access to those pieces otherwise,” Becker says. “But I think it’s also important for people to feel like they can see themselves in an archive.”

Last month, the College of Visual Arts and Design dedicated a new arts building that includes a study center where students can easily retrieve 600 rotating pieces of clothing and accessories from the fashion collection to, say, examine the structure of a circle skirt. Yet, the other 19,000 or so pieces remain in that dusty orange building, which was meant to be a temporary holding space six years ago.

Becker’s dream is that an angel donor will provide the millions it would take to build a permanent facility. But for now, she’s unsure of the collection’s fate. It could be sold to a museum or moved somewhere away from the university. That would be a shame.

About 90 percent of the collection came from individual donors, most with connections to North Texas. So this glorified closet, filled with things that are pretty to look at and a study in craftsmanship, is more than that. It represents our history, telling stories of survival, scandal, innovation, success, and ambition, both by those who made the pieces and those who wore them.

Victor Costa wedding dress of pink net and embroidery (1992), gift of the Doris I. Dixon estate

The Ubiquitous “Fake” Fashion Label

Since the dawn of couturiers, there have been copycats slinking in the shadows, but Victor Costa was the most flagrant of his time. He was the “king of the knockoffs” and wore that crown proudly, making “interpretations” of de la Renta’s ruffles and Christian Lacroix’s bowed bustles with cheaper materials in his Dallas manufacturing plant. Costa’s dresses sold for pennies on the high-fashion dollar at such stores as Neiman’s, Bergdorf’s, and Saks, and, at his height, he was making $50 million a year. Even the non-budget-conscious Ivana Trump ordered more than a dozen of his dresses.

The ability to swiftly tame runway trends into attire that flattered the average woman’s form plus a flamboyant personality earned him a host of custom clients and national press. (Really, how could a journalist resist a character whose peach bedroom was modeled after his favorite suite at the Paris Ritz?) The dress pictured here was made for a lavish country club wedding between an older heiress and a European playboy (the blushing bride was not the first wealthy widow the groom married, and she would not be the last).

Costa’s empire crumbled after a former fitting model sued him for sexual harassment and, in her testimony, accused the designer of gossiping about his upper-crust regulars. He liquidated his business in 1995 and left town.

A Survivor’s Saving Grace

“You don’t usually think of the Holocaust when you think of fashion, but it has a really important impact on fashion history because so many Jewish designers ended up fleeing to the United States and brought with them all of their expertise and creativity,” Becker says. Her proof: the collection’s 24 Lilli Wolff dresses and drawings.

Wolff was a respected costume and dress designer in Cologne, Germany, with a crew of 25 working under her until the Nazis forced her to flee in 1938. She first went to Berlin, where she worked as a costume designer for the Jewish Theatre, before following her friend, a famous German actress, to Vienna.

Lilli Wolff evening dress of silk with faux pearls (1965), gift of Mrs. Dan (Carolyn) Williams

Wolff hid in an apartment for several years, posing when necessary as the actress’s maid by bleaching her hair and donning servant’s clothing. Food was scarce, and the women swapped their jewelry and clothing on the black market for sustenance. A “fairly good dress” bought a dozen eggs.

After the war ended, Wolff met her sister in New York and worked as a seamstress until she got her big break designing dresses for Miss America 1952. A business proposition lured her to Dallas, and she again started her own studio, designing gowns for the city’s well-to-do. “She came from working for theater,” Becker says, “creating these things that are really bold and visually stunning, a lot of crazy things with appliqués, making sculptural designs that on a hanger make absolutely no sense.”

When High Fashion Pays It Forward

It’s not just decades-old castoffs in the collection. Relationships with the city’s leading retailers help keep the collection current. For instance, several times a year, Becker curates themed exhibitions displayed in NorthPark Center’s vast corridors. In return, the retailer helps fund new acquisitions (she couldn’t resist an Alexander McQueen dress from the designer’s legendary Plato’s Atlantis collection to use in the last exhibition).

Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons, dress of black netting and woven fabric (spring 2014), gift of Forty Five Ten

She also recently finished the intake paperwork for a 14-piece donation from high-fashion emporium Forty Five Ten. “It’s exciting that they’re promoting fashion as a kind of art,” Becker says. “On their website, it automatically sorts by designer first instead of by shorts or pants.” That haul included two pieces by Commes des Garçons, the Japanese fashion label founded by Rei Kawakubo, whose beautiful and bewildering designs got the Met Gala treatment two years ago. Valued at $10,770, the spring 2014 look pictured here would have nearly wiped out the TFC’s annual budget for new acquisitions. Fashion, fiber, and sculpture students have already accessed this foam-rod structure to study its unusual makeup. “Anyone who purchases something like that is never going to give it up,” Becker says. “We would have gotten it no other way.”

So Much Balenciaga

“It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches,” Becker says of the 340 Balenciaga pieces that have put the TFC on the high-fashion map. After all, Cristobal Balenciaga is known as the “couturier’s couturier,” a designer who bucked convention with sophistication. About 20 percent of the holdings came from Mrs. Bert de Winter, the head of Neiman Marcus’ millinery salon (way back when hat departments were called millinery salons) and a Dallas society maven of such prowess that her dinner party invitations could make or break a political career.

But the bulk of the Balenciagas were donated by Claudia Heard de Osborne, a debutante launched into the jet set after her father struck oil. Heard de Osborne—who married a wealthy Spaniard and traveled between Dallas and their apartments at the Ritz hotels in Madrid and Paris—was granted the privilege of seeing her dear Cristobal’s designs before the masses.

Left Claudia Heard de Osborne Cristobal Right Balenciaga evening dress of silk taffeta (spring 1955), gift of Claudia Heard de Osborne.

She donated the TFC’s most-requested item: a short fuchsia evening dress. “Short is always relative, but for 1955 this was kind of revolutionary in its day,” Becker says. “It’s also an example of Balenciaga building a sculptural silhouette. I really love sharing this with our students, because if you get underneath you can see the hoops that are sewn in to create volume. This is shortly after Dior’s ‘New Look,’ the really nipped-in waist and full skirt that was created with yards and yards of tulle and fabric. This is a different way of creating a similar look.”

No Wire Hangers

Claudia Heard de Osborne so loved her Balenciaga masterpieces, she left notes about many of the donated pieces. Of the fuchsia dress she wrote:

“Dear Lord! I do hope you appreciate this as it is I think the most glamorous ball gown he ever made. Do not call it a cocktail dress. It is NOT. One season 20 some years ago no one in Paris made a floor length ball gown all were 3/4 length. Do not ask me why. Neither Balenciaga nor C. Dior or any house made a floor length evening gown that year. This one is in fuchsia taffeta draped over a hopped skirt – (REAL HOOPS) – It has rows of white Chantilly lace around the off shoulder line and a tiny fuchsia bow to tie over each arm, also at the bottom of the skirt are rows of the white lace. It is very Scarlett O’Hara – I wore it the first time to La Scala in Milano and to a very elegant opera ball that followed in the palace of friends of ours. My gown caused a sensation in our box at La Scala and at the ball. I believe it is the most romantic gown he ever made. I wore shoulder length white gloves and a ——- of white fresh gardenias. My husband is furious that I gave this up. Please see it on some small model to really see it. On a coat hanger you cannot judge it.”

The Wealthy Who Oil the Fashion Wheels

Even when she was just the socialite wife of a diplomat—before her whirlwind affair and subsequent marriage to Fort Worth billionaire Sid Bass, which would rock high society and catapult her to the top rung—Mercedes Bass was an Oscar de la Renta devotee. And for nearly a decade, the TFC benefited from the philanthropist’s high-flying lifestyle. Bass would send heaps of high-end apparel she no longer needed. In total, she donated just over 800 pieces, 180 of them Oscar de la Renta’s elegant creations.

“She can’t wear the same thing twice and be photographed for the New York Times,” Becker says. “But also I think she sees herself as a patron of the arts, and part of that is also the fashion arts. So the reason she had so many Oscar de la Rentas, I think, is she felt like she was a patron to him. She made a point of going to his runway shows and purchasing things from him regularly—which is the bread and butter of how a high-end designer keeps going.”

Oscar de la Renta House of Balmain evening dress of silk satin with lace (fall/winter 1992), gift of Mercedes Bass (right).

Perhaps the most significant of Bass’ de la Renta donations are the pieces from the designer’s tenure with the House of Balmain beginning in 1992. “Oscar de la Renta was both a bold and somewhat expected choice for the head of the House of Balmain. “As the first American designer to lead a historic French couture house, he moved American fashion design from being sad seconds—especially with the Americans’ long history of copying couture—to a more respectable position,” Becker says. “This all happened in the early 1990s, when haute couture was in a moment of crisis. The old masters were retiring, the economy wasn’t the best, and many people were turning away from the opulence of the 1980s. Choosing someone like Oscar signified a stance with the old way—and with the somewhat conservative clientele they brought with them, like Mercedes Bass—rather than a turning point, like when Givenchy appointed John Galliano.”

The Neiman Marcus Start

Claire McCardell “television suit” (1951), part of the original TFC collection

Decades before Juicy Couture would make comfortable clothing a status symbol, Neiman’s introduced a modern ensemble that allowed women to lounge on the couch without the nuisance of a full skirt. The 1951 Claire McCardell “television suit” comes from the original Neiman Marcus collection, which is now represented by about 150 items within the TFC’s current holdings.

Other items collected by the Marcus brothers “range from Christian Dior haute couture evening dresses to pieces made by American designers using new synthetic materials during WWII to children’s clothing,” Becker says. Many of the items, she explains, either represent an innovation tied to a cultural moment or coincided with the winners of the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award, a prestigious prize in decades past. (Christian Dior made his first trip to the States to accept his award in 1947.)

Designer Unknown

Despite the TFC’s ceaseless pursuit of new acquisitions, Becker says, they turn down about 95 percent of what they are offered. Generally, either the pieces aren’t in good condition or the style is already represented (the collection can take only so many DVF wrap dresses). So a designer label doesn’t guarantee a garment’s entry into the collection. In fact, about 1,150 are tagged “designer unknown.”

Cocktail dress of smocked taffeta by unknown American designer (1958), gift of Les Femmes du Monde

What matters most: innovation. “I’ve turned down pieces by Chanel and said yes to things that were made at home by someone’s grandma or mom,” Becker says. “Because sometimes people who aren’t trained as fashion designers find new and interesting ways of using materials or constructing things. I’m sure to a lot of people, the criteria seem kind of arbitrary. It takes a lot of consideration when we don’t have a lot of space to add things.” A prime example of a homemade achievement is this petal pink dress, magnificently hand-smocked.

Odd Todd Oldham

The Dallas Morning News first wrote about Texas native Todd Oldham in a May 1980 article on Oak Lawn designers. He was working in alterations at the Polo Ralph Lauren store in Highland Park Village at the time and making men’s clothes that sold at a store called Slick. Oldham was only 18 and hadn’t lived in the city even three months. (Already showing a tendency toward the oddball, Oldham told the paper he didn’t run his air conditioner because his “mother taught us to condition ourselves.”) Not long after, Oldham borrowed $100 from his parents to buy a bolt of white fabric, dyed it in his bathtub, and whipped up a small women’s collection. Neiman’s bought it.

The News profiled him again in 1986 when the “shy 24-year-old” had a $2 million business and a factory near the Anatole where most of his family worked—even his granny was in on the game. Again, proving to be something of a nonconformist, Oldham told the paper, “I like what I do very much. But one thing I find irritating is that people take it so damn seriously. It’s just clothes. It’s not an art form. Clothes are for folly or warmth or amusement or practicality, and I think we combine all of it.”

Todd Oldham digitally printed knit dress (spring 1996), gift of Todd Oldham

Three years later, a Japanese firm invested in Oldham’s lighthearted approach to fashion, kick-starting a decade of colorful designer collections. When he opted out of high-end fashion’s relentless churn in 1999, Oldham passed his archives to several fashion collections, giving about 130 pieces to the TFC.

“I might be fan-girling a bit,” Becker says. “But Todd Oldham is almost the gold standard in how to be respectful and thoughtful.” She points to his use of everyday items for inspiration, the fact that his designs were vegan, and his innovation in digital printing, as demonstrated in this spring 1996 dress. (Wesley Snipes wore a similar outfit in the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.)

Big Men in Little Coats

The Fort Worth estate of the eccentric Gentling twins, Stuart (d. 2006) and Scott (d. 2011), was like a highbrow Ripley’s odditorium complete with shrunken heads, reproduction pistols, and taxidermy aplenty, but also stockpiles of antique clothes and a mass of the art they created together. Local institutions reaped the benefits of the brothers’ curious hoard. The Amon Carter got enough of their work that the museum was able to create the The Gentling Study Center, where people can pore over the artists’ sketches, portraits, and renowned Texas bird watercolors, while the TFC received their substantial collection of 18th-century menswear.

Though some appear to be contemporary costumes, many of the 170 or so pieces, including this elaborately hand-embroidered velvet coat, are true antiques. The men used the garments as props for their studio practice, but Becker also has photos of them wearing the pieces, which, she says, “as an archivist makes me do a full-body cringe. When bodies go into these things, they end up being destroyed. As we’re freezing and vacuuming, we found needles and thread in the arms in some of the coats, because they were standing like 1970s men and not 1790s men and just busted out of the seams.”

Designer unknown, men’s coat of velvet with embroidery (1760–1780), gift of the Estate of Scott Gentling

The Sisters Who Made Maternity Fashionable

Inspired by her pregnant sister, Edna, who looked like a “beach ball in an unmade bed,” Elsie Frankfurt invented an outfit that made gestating look chic for perhaps the first time in history. Before that 1937 moment, most expectant mothers let out the seams of their everyday dresses and hitched the waist up above their bulging bellies. It wasn’t a good look.

Their second boutique was on Hollywood’s Wilshire Boulevard. Knocked-up starlets became walking advertisements for the frocks.

Elsie’s design involved a window cut out of a straight skirt with adjustable bands to allow for growth, topped by a stylish trapeze jacket. Voila. Pregnant women could feel comfortable being seen outside the house. Together with their sister, Louise, the three young women built a multimillion dollar maternity wear company by making several smart moves. For one, they opened their first boutique in downtown Dallas’ Medical Arts Building, catching foot traffic to and from the obstetricians’ offices. Their second boutique was on Hollywood’s Wilshire Boulevard. Knocked-up starlets became walking advertisements for the frocks. Lucille Ball, Jackie O, Grace Kelly, and Judy Garland—they all wore Page Boy.

Maternity styles mirrored the trends of the day: maxi dresses in the 1960s, power suits in the ’80s. Page Boy also employed some progressive workplace practices. A 1964 Life magazine photo essay shows Dallas factory workers meditating at sewing machines and the skirt-suited sisters doing headstands in their executive suite. Captions explain that Edna had “switched to yoga from tranquilizers” and found that the boost in staff morale made up for the cost of the daily break.

Page Boy Maternity dress of quilted syntehtic (late 1960s-early 1970s), anonymous gift

The sisters sold to the company now known as Destination Maternity in 1994. The TFC is now the unofficial keeper of Page Boy’s archives, with 64 garments plus catalogs, photographs, pregnant mannequins, and ceramic dolls modeled to look like notable women through history, all, of course, with baby bumps. “They were so savvy,” Becker says. “It’s such a great story of female empowerment.”

Traditional Cultural Ensembles

A small but colorful part of the collection holds clothing from around the world—embroidered boots from Uzbekistan, a traditional Korean hanbok dress worn for formal occasions, a Banjara belly dancer’s bustier jangling with silver coins, and, as pictured, a ceremonial metal headdress from the Miao people, an ethnic minority with origins in southern China. Of those pieces, 190 were donated by Joy Losee, a Georgia resident who became a Pan-Am flight attendant in the ’60s. For decades, she would buy traditional outfits wherever her plane landed.

Designer unknown (Miao culture), Sisters’ Meal Festival headpiece (ca. 20th century), gift of Joy Losee

Incredibly, Losee often acquired complete headdress-to-shoes ensembles—perfect for exhibition purposes. Yet Becker also recognizes that these pieces are one American’s concept of another culture’s traditional clothing. “Sometimes when international visitors come here, they get excited that their country is represented,” Becker says. “Then they look at what we have and think this looks like tourist junk.” Imagine if someone tried to represent Dallas with one get-up, she points out. This is one area Becker hopes to expand with the help of international donors. “Fashion history tends not to include things outside the Western fashion system. A lot of our collection is old white men from Europe, so to have counter perspectives is really important.”

Dallas’ Current King of Couture

As a custom clothier for the Dallas’ gala-going set for more than three decades, Michael Faircloth has accepted some interesting requests. He’s been given alligator skins to work with, and there was the time he made an ostrich skirt using the hide of the naughty pet that attacked a client’s father. He once made a cashmere knit lounge set for a woman who then requested nine more for all of her homes. The red gown Laura Bush wore to George W.’s first inauguration is certainly his most notable custom order. And he often designs pieces specifically to be worn with newly acquired fine jewelry, such as this brocade evening coat that complemented an aquamarine and diamond Cartier set.

For Becker, it’s the diversity of shapes and sizes among the fashion collection’s 23 Michael Faircloth pieces that is particularly significant. “For our collection to represent a really beautiful plus-sized piece is really important, especially thinking about our students,” Becker says. “They won’t only be designing for size 2 people.”

Michael Faircloth evening coat of silk brocade with embroidery (2012), gift of Michael Faircloth.

Faircloth himself benefited from the TFC as a young designer studying fashion at UNT in the early ’80s, and he plans to one day donate his entire archive to the collection. “Looking at beautifully made couture garments from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s—so it was the height of the couture era—and seeing their exquisite fabrics and their incomparable craftsmanship, that’s what I wanted to create,” he says.

He also received a “secondary education” working in sales at Neiman Marcus, which allowed him to get up close and personal with visiting designers and a high-society clientele. Yet Faircloth knew he didn’t want to work for anyone else for long. The weekend after graduation, he quit Neiman Marcus and started his studio practice with a single client. “And that one is still a client 35 years later,” he says.

Faircloth also credits his mother with steering him into a life in the arts instead of his planned career in the law. “She was dying of cancer when I was 18, and she probably wanted to guide me in a direction that she thought would be more gratifying,” he says. She passed away six months after he started college, but her legacy lives on through his designs.

“It was an excellent choice,” Faircloth says. “Looking back and reflecting on my mother’s thoughts, she was correct. Every day I make people feel beautiful and confident and happy.”

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