Over his six-decade-long career the late fashion designer Oscar de la Renta never stopped asking: What do women want to wear? His women -- first ladies, heiresses, philanthropists and, increasingly toward the end of his career, celebrities -- wanted clothing that was beautiful and luxurious yet tasteful and forgiving. They wanted clothing that fit their lives, which so often meant clothing reflective of their position in society. And he consistently delivered, both on the runway and off; the Dominican Republic-born designer’s reputation as the last of a certain breed of old-world gentleman remained as unimpeachable as the dependability of his output.
Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective, on view at the de Young Museum through May 30, 2016, is a testament to this consistency, to the combination of technical skill, unerring good taste, and business savvy which made “Oscar” the go-to name for women interested in a certain mode of power dressing, one which purred rather than roared. As such, the exhibition feels more like one big trunk show than a critical appraisal. It is hard to tell if this is solely the fault of lax curation or simply a reflection of de la Renta’s aesthetic. And as much as I appreciate glittering eye candy, I left asking a different question: What do we want from textiles exhibitions?
Like his contemporaries Valentino Garavani, Karl Lagerfeld, and the late Yves Saint Laurent, de la Renta was of the last generation of designers to work directly under the masters -- Fath, Dior, Balenciaga, Balmain -- of couture’s golden age. He sketched for Balenciaga and was on the design team at Lanvin-Costello, a formative education that shows in his earliest ready-to-wear designs soon after he moved to America.
Case in point: A clear vinyl raincoat for Jane Derby’s Resort ’66 collection is covered in swirls and clusters of rhinestones, an embellishment worthy of an evening cape. His training also shows in simpler pieces, such as the three jewel tone, bias cut nylon and silk gowns that helped establish de la Renta’s then-fledgling namesake line when they were worn at the now-infamous Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973.
Indeed, there are echoes of Balenciaga, in particular, in de la Renta’s deft handling of fabric (de la Renta, in fact, took the lead in organizing the Balenciaga: Spanish Master exhibition at New York's Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in 2010, an expanded version of which later traveled to the de Young).
A de la Renta-designed saffron yellow evening cape with delicately gathered balloon sleeves, from Balmain’s autumn/winter 1993-94 collection, recalls the grand Balenciaga coat Countess Mona von Bismarck wore in the famous 1955 photograph by Cecil Beaton. The cape is on display in a gallery of other Spanish-inspired designs, each flamenco flounce and ruched yard of silk an example of de la Renta fulfilling Balenciaga’s famous quip that a designer must make a ruffle “become intelligent.”
Certainly, de la Renta’s tenure at the Paris-based couture house of Balmain, where he was head designer 1992-2002, saw the fullest realization of his intelligence, giving him access to materials and resources to realize his creations at an entirely different level of luxury and sumptuousness. His use of sable alone, not to mention the intricacy of the embroidery and fineness of the silks in many of these pieces, would make a Catherine the Great of any socialite who wore them.
But unlike Balenciaga, there are no radical proposals here about volume or form, no new ways of seeing how fabric can be manipulated around and for a moving body. De la Renta is revealed to be a great synthesizer, borrowing blossoming shapes from Dior and Charles James for his dramatic ball gowns and who, following Saint Laurent, looked to China and Russia for inspiration. But he did so without the former two designers' architectural bravura, and certainly without Saint Laurent’s penchant for glamorous provocation.
Indeed, there is nothing provocative about de la Renta’s designs. If a contestant on Ru Paul’s Drag Race wore one during the runway challenge, she would undoubtedly be called beautiful, but she would neither rise to the top nor fall to the bottom. In the parlance of the television show, she would be “safe” from elimination. But beautiful and safe is what de la Renta’s customers wanted and what he gave them.
Beautiful but safe could also describe Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective. A fashion exhibition shouldn’t just be an opportunity to window-shop the closets of the rich, the powerful or the famous. There is a story that could be told here about material culture, the consolidation of wealth, of status and self-presentation, but that would require a criticality toward the objects on display that is nowhere to be found. I kept thinking about Hilary Clinton’s now-infamous eulogy of the late Nancy Reagan, and of the continued influence of money in politics, as I stood before clothing de la Renta had designed, decades apart, for both former first ladies.
Such concerns are not part of the exhibition’s M.O. Emblematic is its final gallery, where an US Weekly spread comes to life with footage of celebs on various red carpets displayed on a Jumbotron-sized screen next to the very gowns they are wearing. The display is a testament to the popular hold a certain dream of fashion still exerts on a public obsessed with and shaped by media, one that this retrospective’s organizers seem no less captive to.
De la Renta knew how to spin that dream into an extremely successful business, even in fashion’s current accelerated age. That Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective follows suit is both unsurprising and disappointing.
Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective is on view at the de Young in San Francisco through May 30, 2016. Visit deyoung.famsf.org for tickets and more information.