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LACMA fashions a new reputation

A big purchase makes the museum a center for European clothing of

January 02, 2009|Suzanne Muchnic

With a single acquisition -- quietly in the works for three years and made public today -- the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has become a major center for the study and display of 18th and 19th century European clothing.

The new addition of about 250 outfits and 300 accessories created between 1700 and 1915 includes men's three-piece suits, women's dresses, children's garb and a vast array of shoes, hats, purses, shawls, fans and undergarments. Wonders of innovative design, meticulous construction and intricate needlework, they were painstakingly assembled over a quarter of a century by two European dealers.

LACMA bought the collection with funds provided by Los Angeles philanthropist Suzanne Saperstein and other donors. As a matter of policy, the museum does not disclose the cost of acquisitions, but sources familiar with the European costume market said that this was a multimillion-dollar deal. Many of the ensembles would probably bring six-figure prices at auction because of their workmanship, condition and rarity.

"We could never put this collection together, dress by dress, even if we had the money," said Sharon S. Takeda, senior curator and head of the museum's costume and textiles department. "We had a very good 18th century collection, but it was strongest in English and American material." The new cache -- predominantly French, with some items from the Netherlands -- is a near-perfect fit that "makes LACMA's collection incredibly strong," Takeda said. "We will be able to show fashion history, how the silhouette changed from decade to decade, and talk about other things that happened at the same time."

The collection also seems likely to prove a valuable resource for Hollywood costume designers.

Saperstein, a collector of haute couture who has studied 18th and 19th century fashions and furniture, said that she was "absolutely amazed" when she got her first peek at the collection about a year ago. "I am very interested in period textiles and costumes, so for me it was wonderful to see. I think the community is going to love it."

The first exhibition of the acquisition will be held in fall 2010, when "Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915" will inaugurate the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion under construction immediately north of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, on the west side of LACMA's campus.

The show will track fashion's technical and artistic development from the Enlightenment to World War I and explore related cultural themes. Special attractions will include a man's knitted silk waistcoat designed as a statement of support for the French Revolution; a hunting ensemble composed of a red wool coat, white leather breeches and black riding boots; and a black silk-satin gown embroidered in gold thread and sequins that belonged to Queen Maria II of Portugal.

Ambitious as that project is, it's only a beginning, Takeda said this week as she and her colleagues pointed out examples stored in large boxes on rolling metal shelves, spread out on tables and hung on racks. Along with impossibly complicated, handmade garments, there's a "lobster pot" bustle, a pair of women's thigh-high "fetish" boots and a carved wood "Hercules club," designed as an intimidating walking stick for gentlemen needing to protect themselves.

All this was amassed by dealers Martin Kamer of London and Wolfgang Ruf of Beckenried, Switzerland, who were fierce competitors for many years. They eventually decided to merge their holdings into one massive collection and offer it to a few museums, said Takeda, who got wind of it about three years ago.

LACMA had no director at the time; Andrea Rich had retired and Michael Govan had yet to come on board. But Takeda and an assistant went to the warehouse in Basel, Switzerland, where the collection was stored, and compiled a thorough report. They returned to Los Angeles with detail-filled notebooks and high hopes but no idea if money could be found for the purchase.

A few months after Govan took charge of LACMA, he challenged curators to "raise the bar," Takeda said. "He asked us to look at really important pieces, things that could change our departments and the museum." Within a week, she took her idea to the new director, who "just totally got it," she said. "He saw right away that this helps to bring the museum's collection alive" by providing "a window into paintings" and other artworks.

Govan, Takeda and Ellen Michelson, a member of the museum's Costume Council who lives in San Francisco, soon made a trip to Basel to see the collection. Michelson and her husband, Michael, agreed to pay about a third of the purchase price, a sum that would allow the museum to ship the collection to Los Angeles and show it to potential donors.

"We brought in small groups, and everyone was blown away," Takeda said. Additional funds arrived, but time was running out and the museum had secured less than half the purchase price when Saperstein came to the rescue.

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