The First Gentleman Of Fashion

Tanya Basu considers the legacy of Oscar de la Renta, who died yesterday at the age of 82:

Before de la Renta’s entrance, American fashion was ruled by copycats: Runway looks from Paris and London were adjusted for American tastes, which strayed towards the practical and First Lady Laura Bush joins Oscar de la Renta during fall 20avoided the cutting-edge risks that defined the European scene. De la Renta changed that—he focused on the American woman, her needs, her cultural outlook, her sense of practicality but desire to be beautiful. De la Renta combined these sensibilities into what became his unmistakable brand of strong lines, very little skin-show, sumptuous fabrics, vibrant single hues, ornate details like lace and bows and pearls that evoked a purity that was at once sultry and innocent, and, most importantly, a tag bearing his calligraphic name, scrolled in smooth strokes both delightfully unexpected and surprisingly expected, just like his line. …

Indeed, de la Renta’s revolutionary designs were, ironically, steadfast in their dedication to classic form and structure, stridently maintaining a fairy-tale quality that gave the women he dressed an ethereal quality. He favored ruffles, billowing tiered gowns that evoked a concoction of Renaissance grandeur with graphic Warholian splashes of color. Unlike some of his peers, de la Renta avoided making political statements or overt experimentation (“Fashion is non-political and non-partisan,” de la Renta said in that same Clinton video while discussing how he dressed then-First Lady Hillary Clinton for a Vogue shoot).

Amanda Wills put together a gallery of first ladies in de la Renta gowns. One very reluctant late addition:

First lady Michelle Obama had a frosty relationship with de la Renta, snubbing his designs for years after he publicly criticized her choice of clothing for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II in 2009 and at a state dinner with Chinese officials two years later. This month, she appeared in the designer’s clothing for the first time, wearing a de la Renta dress at a White House cocktail party.

Zooming back out, Robin Givhan has more on the appeal of his designs:

With French lace and delicate embroidery, he helped women subdue their insecurities. And with his eye for a gentle flounce and a keen understanding of line and silhouette, he helped them build a powerfully stylish wardrobe that never denied their femininity nor apologized for it. He helped them look like their most romantic vision of themselves. …

Today, there are designers in New York who are more adept at capturing the sexuality of the modern era. There are those who are able to speak to the esoteric, the experimental and the avant-garde. But de la Renta represented a kind of old-school fashion with its emphasis on propriety, elegance and good taste.

Lauren Indvik adds:

De la Renta’s couture training always showed. Whatever the fashion of the moment, his garments were always constructed, shaping the female body into something more perfect and swan-like than its natural shape allowed. “I don’t really know how to do casual clothes,” he told WWD in 2005.

(Photo from Getty)