Norman Norell: Dean of American Fashion
Reviewed by Susannah Shubin MA Fashion Curation 16-17
The Norman Norell exhibit currently taking place at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology is a long overdue tribute to the great designer, known as the first American couturier. Sadly, Norell suffered a stroke the night before the Met was to open a one day retrospective in his honor in 1972. He died 10 days later. Fast forward almost fifty years and you have what is possibly a more extensive, comprehensive representation of his work, thanks due largely to the collection of collector and fashion designer Kenneth Pool.
The exhibition is housed in two rooms on the lower floor of the museum. Visitors who may not be familiar with the designer are gratefully educated by well written caption plates throughout the show.
The first room features a Norell introductory text panel accompanied by a lineup of 12 or so mannequins which summarize his 50 year career. A video of a 1923 film starring Gloria Swanson shows Norell’s initial expertise as a Hollywood costume designer. This is followed by another video of a 1962 fashion show. The comparison of these two distinct eras show the breadth and evolution of his work as well as the influence of his early years.
There is a small accessory case on the opposite wall featuring a smattering of costume jewelry with four silk scarves are mounted above. However, this could have been omitted as it does not lend itself to the integrity of the overall exhibit. One senses there was just an empty wall to fill.
The main room is impressive. Upon entering, its soaring ceilings give one the feeling of space and drama. A parade of elegant Bonaveri mannequins line the four walls on raised plinths, while an enormous circular platform of models is placed in the center of the room. Here a Swarovski lit “disco ball” chandelier reflects both evening wear and a group of Norell’s mermaid gowns. Known for their shimmering hand sewn sequins, the mermaid gowns catch the light fantastic and draw the eye to the central threshold stage. It should be noted that a similar lighting technique was used in the anti-room, but its effect is lost, as one does not fully understand the significance until entering the main room and seeing the mermaid grouping.
The exhibition is arranged thematically. Categories range from silhouettes, to esoteric details, such as the pilgrim collared ensembles which was one of Norell’s signature aesthetics.
Double breasted coats and menswear inspired plaid jackets were
displayed together, showing contrasting colors, button styles and hemlines. Ahead of his time, fur trimmed dresses and coats were a popular motif for Norell and while such practice was later embraced by designers such as Ferre, de la Renta and Blass, Norrell was an early pioneer of these and other motifs including the pussycat bow, culottes and women’s trousers.
Another grouping includes Norell’s famous sailor collared gowns and dresses with his signature bright red silk bow. Both day and evening pieces feature this design element, a look that would instantly identify the garment as a “Norell”.
In a category simply called “Belts” the visitor is presented with renditions of dresses defined by rhinestone and leather buckles, satin sashes and gathered waistlines in a variety of widths and fabrics.
Beautifully presented with no special effects, other than a soft auditory loop running in the background, the Norell exhibit is all about the clothing. Without wigs, hats, footwear or mannequin adornment of any kind, one is not distracted from the main attraction. Instead guests are left to marvel at the design, construction and imagination of the creator. The visitor is immersed in the world of Norman Norell and finds it difficult to leave.
The Norman Norell exhibition runs through April 14, 2018.
Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. New York.