By Bobi Garland | December 10, 2022
The Performance of Art at the Art of Performance
There was a handful of women so far ahead of the times that fashion didn’t catch up to them for fifty years. What ground breaking diva wore the man’s tailcoat first? Was it Josephine Baker, Louise Brooks, or Marlene Dietrich? No matter who wore it first, or who wore it best, it was costume designer Travis Banton, Dietrich and Swarovski crystals that minted an icon.
Dietrich’s shocking display of gender fluidity was a direct challenge to both the military uniform and the exclusive terrain of class and convention—the gentleman and his riding suit. Turning the color white into a dare, Banton used Swarovski crystals to keep the camera and Cary Grant’s eyes on the star. The utilitarian side stripe was born to cover unsightly seams and possible misfortune when dismounting a horse. Banton’s crystal side stripes emphasized Dietrich’s long legs and quite possibly contributed to Grant’s certain unraveling. She was as much a man as he and a better woman.
To memorialize this cultural shift Swarovski’s Kristallwelten Wattens museum in Austria dedicated a ‘Chambers of Wonder’ to talent and the costumes worn for iconic performances.
The museum’s art director, Carla Rumler, invited Los Angeles artist and designer, Michael Schmidt, and theater and Academy Awards stage designer, Derek McLane, to create a gallery in tribute to the company’s collaborations with performers and costume designers. Guests are welcomed into the gallery by mannequin in Marlene Dietrich’s likeness, dressed in a recreation of Banton’s white tie and tails from Blonde Venus (1932). This was also Swarovski’s cinema debut.
As curator, Schmidt chose to include eight fully costumed and crystalized mannequins representing artists in their moments of immortality. McLane incorporated elements from his Tony Award winning Moulin Rouge set with the stage echoing Elton John’s debut at LA’s Troubadour, complete with a glass grand piano. Elton John breaks the laws of style and gravity. The room’s chandelier is a recreation of the Jeremy Scott designed dress Katy Perry wore to the 2019 Met Gala, full size.
Designer friends contributed items from their private collections and studios opened their archives. Kym Barrett’s beautiful and extravagant headpiece from Jupiter Ascending shares a vitrine with the crystalized flower headband for Serena Gomez as Frida Kahlo, designed by Schmidt and Arianne Phillips. Next to his recreation of Adrian’s ruby slippers, originally made by Western
Costume Company, is the solid crystal slipper from Sandy Powell’s Cinderella.
A small vitrine holds Lady Gaga’s articulated glove, an elegant and lethal feminine re-imagining of a medieval gauntlet created by Schmidt for costume designer Lou Eyrich and American Horror Story: Hotel. The designer
Michael Bush generously loaned one of the most identifiable statements of a performer’s style, Michael Jackson’s crystal glove and fedora.
A vitrine the size of a small gallery is dedicated to long-time collaborators Bob Mackie and Cher. Mackie also lent his costume illustration for Jean Louis’ “Happy Birthday Mister President” gown for Marilyn Monroe, and a replica of the garment is on loan from a private collector. Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie’s tailcoat for Satine (Nicole Kidman) in Moulin Rouge reminds us that before anyone did anything, burlesque did it all. With the promise of Martin’s strategically placed crystal fringe, Satine could shake anyone into oblivion.
Covid arrived shortly after Schmidt and McLane saw the space for the first and only time until installation. The new reality meant that the costumes would not be available until a few weeks before opening. Scarcity became an issue for everything from chandelier parts to textiles. Every measurement had to be precise whether it was for the exquisite vitrines, calibrating safe lighting levels for precious fabrics, or the careful sizing of mannequins
for a perfect costume fit.
Swarovski’s dream of an exhibition made of cloth, crystal, mirrors, and light became a reality through creativity, technology and perseverance. The Art of Performance is a celebration of collaboration and achievement. It is also a reminder that long after the stage goes dark the magic remains with the costumes.