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At Philadelphia Museum of Art show ‘Fabulous Fashion,’ there is a party on every dais | Elizabeth Wellington

"Fabulous Fashion" is about the joy and frivolity in fashion. Nothing is restrained. And everything belongs.

Curator Kristina Haugland sits in front of a collection of dresses that explore the use of color and pattern, part of a new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries, October 5, 2018. Avi Steinhardt / For the Inquirer
Curator Kristina Haugland sits in front of a collection of dresses that explore the use of color and pattern, part of a new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries, October 5, 2018. Avi Steinhardt / For the InquirerRead moreAvi Steinhardt

I've long known Philadelphia Museum of Art associate costume curator Kristina Haugland as a woman who uses her magnificent collection of more than 30,000 textile pieces to illustrate history's teachable moments.

But on a recent walk through Haugland's latest show, "Fabulous Fashion: From Dior's New Look to Now," opening Tuesday, I saw  a #fanmoment twinkle behind Haugland's studious spectacles.

And wow. It was contagious.

We talked about the exquisiteness of a 1948 Christian Dior bodice and skirt — the key example of Dior's tailored New Look that  historians hail as the beginning of modern ready-to-wear —  that opens the show. Next to it stands a hot-pink Dior skirt suit, complete with wool stole, that John Galliano designed for the House of Dior in 1988. Fun!

"It's so flirtatious," Haugland said with glee.

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The beauty of "Fabulous Fashion" is that it's full of fun. Haugland dreamed up this whimsical show for the express purpose of joy and frivolity. So nothing about "Fabulous Fashion" is restrained. And everything belongs. "Fabulous Fashion" is a celebration of the industry's creativity. There is a party on every dais.

"It's meant to be an experience," Haugland said. "It's very visually immersive."

Bring on the glam

After the two Dior ensembles that are a nod to the exhibition's title, the glam takes over.

On our walkthrough, we happened next upon a 1951 Cristóbal Balenciaga gown with petticoats — about which Haugland was again effusive. Same at our next stop, Philadelphia-bred Ralph Rucci's navy silk and satin Stingray Swan gown from 2001, with a silhouette inspired by the sharp angles of  the deadly sea creature.

Moving on, we marveled together at a velvet, off-the-shoulder claret evening gown by mid-20th century costume designer Adrian. The New York Times, to Haugland's delight, memorably referred to it in 1947 as the "winged victory dress."

Rounding a corner, we took a quick glance at the shoes — including a pair of 1993 gingham Vivienne Westwood platforms that were clearly meant to be worshiped, not worn — and entered a Technicolor explosion of pizzazz and glitter that spanned the decades: 1950s dinner suits, 1960s mod dresses, and 1990s crazy.  Included in that vibrant group was a psychedelic Chistian Lacroix catsuit.

"It's among my favorites,"  Haugland said, acknowledging the onesie's indisputable out-of-this-world funkiness. "We have such fabulous things that we don't get to show off often," she said. "This is such a good opportunity to get pieces in front of people that have never been on view before."

Icons galore

Besides being a fashionista's delight, the show will almost certainly be lauded by fashion historians, as well. The work of the icons is on full display here: Chanel suits, Balenciaga baby doll dresses, Oscar de la Renta ball gowns, and James Galanos column dresses.

Their work is complemented nicely by pieces from designers who are not quite household names (yet), but who are revered in the industry. A purple, feathered Peter Som cocktail dress from 2008 is one such standout.

Rei Kawakubo, who sits at the helm of the highly conceptual Japanese brand Commes des Garçons, is also represented, for serious fashion gravitas. Among the Kawakubo pieces on display is an architectural coat from the 2018-19 fall season acquired from the Chestnut Street specialty store Joan Shepp.

"'It's one of the most amazing parts of my career," Shepp told me. The museum bought the coat from Shepp, who donated a pair of shoes to complete the outfit. "Who would ever think I would make it into the Philadelphia Museum of Art?"

Red-carpet lingo from E!

Haugland organized "Fabulous Fashion" around themes that are familiar to those of us who peruse glossies, follow bloggers, or simply watch E! red carpet specials: shape and volume, embellishment, color and pattern, metallics, and drape.

There is also an entire section of the exhibition exploring bridal fashion.

Because we are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art — the official home of Princess Grace's wedding gown — there is a glass case holding the princess's wedding accessories, including her shoes and headpiece. The delicate gown itself is currently in storage and not part of the show.

Also here, in a nod to our museum's (and our city's) solid fashion cachet, is a hooded wedding gown created by another Philadelphia-born designer, Gustave Tassell.

Because of of the piece's monklike vibe, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted to include this 1968 silk and wool moire nuptial dress in its just-closed exhibition "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination." But Haugland said nope. "I wanted to use it in my exhibition," she said.

Fash facts

Haugland rattled off factoids with the ease of a zipper making its way up a bodice with a 23-inch waist: Patrick Kelly's flamingo-style gown was fashioned with his muse Josephine Baker in mind. In the color and pattern section is a color-blocked red, white, and blue minidress that mirrors a piece of art by Ellsworth Kelly that the museum owns — don't miss it. Kelly collaborated in 2013 with Calvin Klein creative director Francisco Costa to make the dress.

Tucked into the exhibit’s “metallics” section is a covet-worthy body-skimming gown by Paco Rabanne from 1966. The piece, fashioned from plastic discs and metal chains, was given to the museum by late Inquirer fashion editor Rubye Graham Hennessy. (Other items in the exhibit that once belonged to her are a Pucci printed dress with matching nylon tights, and a 1962 hat color-blocked Mondrian-style designed  by prominent Pennsylvania-born milliner Sally Victor.)

Across from the Rabanne is a very cinched-at-the-waist, glittery gown that fashion designer Anne Fogarty, author of The Fine Art of Being a Well Dressed Wife, wore to a swanky event at the Art Museum in the 1950s.

Haugland — who is also in the midst of planning "Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal," set to open Nov. 11 — didn't set "Fabulous Fashion" into motion until just under two years ago, shortly after the museum received a sizable donation from Kathleen Field.

Field, a former fashion model, interior designer, and wife of the late developer Martin P. Field, promised the museum about five pieces. But after exploring her estate, Haugland acquired for the museum's collection more than 80 items from Field's designer collection, making for a lot of oohing and ahhing.

Several are in "Fabulous Fashion," including a red Jacqueline de Ribes dress, the Lacroix catsuit, and the pink Dior suit. "She really had exuberant tastes," Haugland said.

"Fabulous Fashion"  was  originally to focus on Field's pieces. But Haugland decided she wanted to pay homage to the museum's long-standing relationship with major donor Annette Y. Friedland, too. And from there the show grew into the main building's Dorrance exhibition galleries.

Friedland, wife of late Food Fair supermarket chain owner Jack Friedland, is featured in one of the exhibit's videos and also plans to attend an opening event. From her collection there are an Emilio Schuberth gown and several Pierre Cardin dresses. "She's more reserved, so it's a nice juxtaposition," Haugland said.

In the end, this is Haugland's exhibit.  "I picked out a lot of my favorites," she said.