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Celebrity fit club

Fashion by Arnold Scaasi, couturier to stars, socialites, and first ladies, is now on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts

Scaasi exhibit at the MFA
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / September 30, 2010

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In Michael Cunningham’s new novel, “By Nightfall,’’ the protagonist, a New York art dealer staring down a particularly challenging midlife crisis, ruminates about how art has an entirely different identity in a gallery than it does in the real world.

“Although gallery people don’t like to talk about it, even among themselves, this is one of the problems that can arise,’’ the character explains. “The fact that in a hushed white room with polished concrete floors, anything can look like art.’’

This is particularly true of fashion. Put the accumulated wardrobe of most any socialite or celebrity on mannequins amid a somber and well-lit museum display, and you have what appears to be an instantly commercial and accessible art installation. It’s become an increasingly popular device for drawing younger, fashion-conscious visitors through museum doors.

Then you have the work of Arnold Scaasi, the American (by way of Montreal) couturier who courted celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, Mitzi Gaynor, and Mary Tyler Moore in his Fifth Avenue studio and in his tony atelier in Palm Beach. He was also the go-to designer for first ladies ranging from Mamie Eisenhower to Barbara Bush. Last year, the Museum of Fine Arts purchased Scaasi’s extensive archive of sketches and press clippings, and Scaasi donated more than 100 dresses from his archives to the museum’s permanent collection. Since then, the museum has sought additional Scaasi pieces, particularly his early work.

“Scaasi: American Couturier,’’ which just opened at the MFA and runs through June 19, is our first look at 28 of the cocktail dresses, gowns, and ridiculously fun poly-blend pantsuits he created for his devoted klatch of admirers. To understand Scaasi’s work is to realize that he was not a designer sketching out generic collections for the general public. Instead, he was a designer working intimately with his wealthy clients to create memorable frocks and red carpet gowns.

“I’m a perfectionist,’’ Scaasi said in an interview with the Globe last year. “I always say a Scaasi has to be really special. If anyone else was doing what I was doing, then there was no need for me to do it.’’

True to his word, the pieces that fill the Loring Gallery are special. As they relate to 20th-century fashion, they are not revolutionary, but they are a beautifully constructed time capsule of Scaasi’s relationships with particular clients. Textiles curator Pamela Parmal structured the show to focus on Scaasi’s relationship with four key clients, including Streisand. A designer can become quite intimate with a woman when he takes 65 measurements to make sure a dress fits immaculately, and Scaasi was both confidante and couturier to his ladies.

Scaasi entered this luxe world shortly after arriving in New York in the 1950s. Dressing “Today’’ show host (and Boston native) Arlene Francis in 1958, Scaasi created a red and black polka dot strapless bubble dress, a youthful and optimistic piece that anchors the beginning of the MFA exhibition. Alongside his 1958 silver metallic matelassé evening dress and coat ensemble, designed for Francis in the play “Once More, With Feeling,’’ the pieces give a sumptuous taste of a young designer with a playful perspective and an exacting approach.

By the mid-1960s, Scaasi’s silhouettes turn simple, but his materials head into a lavish, more-is-more territory, as evident on a 1962 silk twill paisley embroidered coat, and particularly on the 1967 “Little Egypt’’ dress, a silk weave gown embroidered with coral, sequins, plastic, and metallic foil. “Little Egypt,’’ made for Joetta Norban to wear to the Peacock Ball, is the very definition of a museum-quality dress. Its breathtaking details are meant to be gazed upon and admired at a close proximity.

Scaasi, as both a designer and an artist, hit a creative peak in the mid-to-late 1960s. His 1966 dress for actress Natalie Wood’s appearance on “What’s My Line?’’ remains remarkably fresh. A flirty shift dress of black tulle with little black taffeta bows scattered across it, the innocently sexy frock nearly floats on the mannequin and is a stunning combination of engineering and aesthetics.

An entire platform of the exhibition is devoted to Scaasi’s late 1960s and early 1970s work for Streisand, which reflects the move from elaborately constructed cocktail and eveningwear toward a mix of hippie chic pantsuits and scaled-down red carpet looks. All maintain Scaasi’s larger-than-life perspective on fabrics, furs, and jeweled embellishments, particularly the 1969 Academy Award outfit of sequined sheer silk tulle. The blouse and accompanying trumpet-shaped bell bottoms caused a sensation when people thought Streisand was nude underneath (she wasn’t).

What the exhibition is sorely lacking is Scaasi’s 1970s work, and by the time the designer hit the 1980s, those weightless, youthful dresses of the 1950s and 1960s had evolved into pieces that look as if they might collapse under their own weight. His 1983 gala dress for socialite Gayfryd Steinberg, made of fuchsia satin and black velvet, has more in common with an uncomfortable prom gown or a velvet curtain than his earlier work. He redeems himself with Steinberg’s 1988 evening dress, a silk weave chiffon that is intricately knotted at the torso and delicately embellished with constellations of crystals and pearls.

Are these simply dresses that have been well displayed in a beautiful museum, or is it art? “American Couturier’’ is the very clear work of an artist who had a vision to add sparkle to his constellation of muses. In the process, Scaasi’s work, particularly at his 1960s peak, is a thrilling look into a universe of wealth, charm, and celebrity.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

SCAASI: American Couturier

At: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,

through June 19, 2011. 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org.

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