Tuesday, August 4, 2015
The Joy of Dressing Up
Sad news on Seventh Avenue tonight; an era of American* fashion closes with the flight to Fabulon of the one and only Scaasi.
The dresser (and frequently confidante) of American first ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Laura Bush (talk about from the sublime to the ridiculous), not to mention of folks like Dame Joan Sutherland and Princess Lee Radziwell (which I suppose would be the sublime to the execrable), Scaasi was one of a number of remarkable people (Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, and Halston spring to mind) who made a vast splash in the stodgy world of couture as the '50s gave way to the '60s.
I suppose I was first aware of Scaasi thanks to the movies, or rather The Movie, that film being On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in which he dressed Streisand's Daisy Gamble as a sort of haute gamine, her perfect wardrobe of mini coatdresses, matching tights, and mad hats having nothing at all to do with the character (a shrill klutz) and yet remaining somehow entirely defining (Cecil Beaton got all the acclaim for his work on the period half of the picture - but I really do love the New York outfits just as much or more). My knowledge of him deepened immeasurably, though, in 1997, when the New York Historical Society held a remarkable exhibition ("The Joy of Dressing Up" - hence the title of this post) that showed just what a splendid career he'd had (and was at that time still having). It featured some of his show-biz work, some first lady gowns, and lots and lots of beautiful things from all phases of his life. I went half-a-dozen times, and found something different every visit.
One highlight that I really do remember, though, is this gown and matching coat from the late '50s. The photo doesn't quite catch how sensual (and sensuous - both aspect of those related but very different words apply) the silvery gown and lining of the coat are, nor how very beautifully they contrast the with the vivid satin. It is entirely ladylike, and yet somehow still almost improperly worldly. That affect - cosmopolitan, knowing, but still demure - makes all the more sense when one knows the client for whom it was designed: none other than dear Miss Arlene Francis.
Like so many Scaasis, it is a paradox - flamboyant, but in its lines a little symphony of restraint. His clothes were extravagant, showy, and often very, very brightly colored, but almost always saved by a balancing combination of rigor, elegance, and remarkable technique in execution (it's no coincidence that he started out under the wing of that architect/engineer among dress designers, Charles James). He could make Barbara Bush look almost chic, even as he humanized, warmed, such different amazons as Joan Crawford or Catherine Deneuve.
Unlike so many in his trade, it would seem that Mr. Scaasi more or less confined the drama of fashion to his work. He would appear to have had not only a remarkably successful life, but a rather notably happy one. He left us at 85, his husband of some fifty years and more by his side. The world's a little less glamorous, but he's left us a glorious legacy. I think I'll go watch Daisy Gamble grow some flowers (as if she didn't have enough, what with her peignoir matching her sheets matching her wallpaper...).
* I really should say "North American"; the onetime Mr. Isaacs was originally Canadian.