It has been said that we are all the creators of our own lives, but few have the opportunity to live that statement in the limelight and with the elegance of Valentina, the rags-to-riches designer who emigrated from Russia penniless and created a vivid drama of wealth, power, and influence in Manhattan during the thirties, forties, and fifties.
For my daily walk, I headed up to the Museum of the City of New York with a fashion-loving friend for the recently opened Valentina exhibit. If this exhibit were at the Metropolitan, it would be considered a blockbuster and have lines around the block. Instead, at this gem of a museum only 20 blocks further up Fifth, the crowd was small. But the stark black setting, the simple and useful curatorial notes, and the “oohs” and “aahs” heard across the room made it clear in a matter of minutes that this show was something extraordinary.
Valentina’s dresses were spectacularly simple, many of them draped with an economy of fabric to oblige restrictions during the second world war (who knew?). Her influences ranged from Greek statuary to Russian folk embroidery, but although she dressed the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Lynn Fontaine, it was as if she was designing every dress for her own lithe, tall body, the lengthy shimmering scarves draped around her swanlike neck, imposing head, and sculpted shoulders to create an idealized version of her most divine self.
No one knows precisely when Valentia was born, in large part because she circulated numerous apocryphal accounts of her heritage. All of that is of a piece with the fantasy she created with clothing: the black taffeta evening gowns, the luminous velvet cloaks, the fur trims, and the hats–oh those hats, so simple and yet so startling in size and shape.
Leaving that exhibit felt like leaving the kind of splendid party that, for most of us, exists only in the imagination. As my friend and I headed for the coat check, we looked down at our corduroy pants and winter boots and lamented the fact that nowadays most people attend the theater in running shoes and hardly anyone completes their outfit with a hat–unless it’s meant to keep them warm.
Photos from “Valentina” by Kohle Yohanna (Rizzoli, 2009)