The Denver Art Museum’s “Paris to Hollywood” is very much a show about haute couture in the second half of the 20th century, but it’s impossible to separate it from the fashion moment at hand. And this is definitely a pajamas moment.
Arriving in the pandemic-weaning spring of 2021, when dressing up still means putting on a pair of pants with an actual zipper, this exhibition of impeccable outfits from legendary European designers is equal parts escapism and inspiration. It screams, “Clothing design is art.” It politely whispers, “Time to get out of those sweats.”
A visit to DAM to see this show would be a solid excuse to reacquaint yourself with the highlights of your closet. It has all the elements of a memorable museum outing.
That’s due to curator Florence Müller’s eye for fascinating objects and her deep understanding that the best exhibits don’t just show things, they also tell stories. “Paris to Hollywood” is a fountain of fascinating narratives.
If you go
“Paris to Hollywood: The Fashion and Influence of Véronique and Gregory Peck” continues through July 18 at the Denver Art Museum. It’s included with a general admission ticket, which you need to reserve in advance. Info at 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.
The first is a love story between its main characters, Gregory and Véronique Peck, the movie star and his glamorous French wife. They met when he was making the 1953 film “Roman Holiday” and she was the journalist assigned by the daily France Soir newspaper to interview him. Very shortly after, their professional acquaintance turned personal.
They both brought glamour to the arrangement. He, the Hollywood kind, full of film premieres, award ceremonies and trips to the White House that provided ample opportunities to gussy up and be seen the world over. She, a sense of Paris style that put high design front and center whenever she left the house, even for a picnic or a transcontinental plane ride. Together, they epitomized what it was to be rich and beautiful in their day.
But while Gregory Peck got top billing in the movies of the era, his wife plays lead in this exhibition, which showcases her best outfits. Müller shows us how Véronique Peck leveraged her fame, model-like comportment and winning personality to form relationships with top names in fashion. She used them and they used her to build up their own reputations while lifting the status of their home country’s design industry into the stratosphere. Véronique made it a must to wear haute couture on a red carpet and, 70 years later, that custom remains a symbol of power and success for the wealthy, arty, influential class.
Those tales save “Paris to Hollywood” from falling into the soulless trap that makes many museum fashion exhibitions feel like elitist enterprises or crass branding for top-tier design houses. They give heart to all those heartless, breathless, hairless mannequins that showcase the goods. While that remains the main method for exhibiting the wares here, it somehow feels different because we get to know the flesh-and-blood human being for whom they were crafted and altered. There are photos, videos, sketches and letters from Véronique that put her right there in the galleries at DAM.
About those clothes: Yes, they are as exciting as they sound. Here, a sleeveless, black cocktail dress from Hubert de Givenchy. There, a beaded ball gown from Yves Saint Laurent. There again, a Valentino, a Balenciaga, a Christian Dior. There are dozens of dresses, mini, maxi and in between created by 15 revered couturiers, culled from the 300 samples left in Véronique’s closet when she died in 2012 at the age of 80.
Euro-fashion fans will find their favorite names, along with some that don’t always make it into the U.S. versions of clothing retrospectives. There’s an enlightening display of elevated streetwear, dresses and pantsuits designed by André Courrèges in the 1960s, which still appear relevant, especially within this fashion exhibit that sometimes relies on Tinsel Town nostalgia to connect with audiences.
In this male-dominated design world, there are jackets, skirts and scarves by British designer Thea Porter, who made her way into the fashion club with layered, Middle Eastern-influenced clothing that seems, in retrospect, to have opened the door for the globally blended, cultural remix that has come to define the fashion, art and music that is so popular today.
Véronique, as the exhibition explains, grew up in a fashion-conscious society and knew exactly what she was accumulating. She treated her clothes like a collection rather than a wardrobe. She saved, catalogued and stored things away for posterity, bequeathing it all to the couple’s daughter, Cecilia Peck Voll, who worked closely with Müller assembling the show.
Voll is the source of yet another interesting chapter of the “Paris to Hollywood” story. She is donating 25 of her mother’s iconic outfits to DAM’s permanent collection. The value of such a large volume of haute couture to the museum’s fledgling European fashion holdings can’t be understated. It is transformative, and makes DAM a serious player in this realm, at least in the ranks of museums in the United States.
There’s more to love than the stories, including the overall exhibition design created by Meredith Dale and Brian Dale, co-founders of the Denver art/architecture firm Sort Studio. The duo imagined a simple, muted backdrop for this ultra-high-end clothing that updates the style sensitivities and color palettes popular in the late 1960s through early 1980s.
They divided the various sections of the show by setting up floor-to-ceiling scrims that serve as walls separating themes while being see-through enough to allow forward-looking peeks that tease whatever comes next. It’s a clever move that enhances the wares while doubling as a helpful navigation device.
It’s also elegant, as is everything in “Paris to Hollywood,” including a short video projected on the wall just outside the exhibition entrance that has Müller doing a Q&A with actresses Laura Dern and Sharon Stone. Both knew Véronique, and they provide star-powered testimony to the importance of her clothes.
I’m not sure how relevant this show is to 2021; it avoids the politics of fashion and class, fashion and the environment, fashion and labor, all topics it might have ventured into if it wanted to have a little more bite in this socially conscious second. But it is fulfilling in the way it makes a powerful argument for fashion-consciousness — as something to aspire to because it brings beauty into the world; as a form of self-expression that is available to everyone, even if they can’t afford this particular kind of clothing; as a way of uplifting spirits, both the ones we contain within ourselves and those we influence in others.
We need a little uplift right now. And we need to start dressing up a bit, too. Here’s your muse.
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