The early designs are so straight; the lines are very lean. But as he gets later into his career—and his career wasn’t that long—it starts to go to hell …
It started to go to hell in the mid-eighties. In 1984, when Christian Lacroix appeared, and Women’s Wear Daily begins to endorse “nouvelle society” and all of the lush historicist styles—big sleeves, lavish materials, pattern, color—Halston is in a quandary, because that is completely antithetical to who he is as a designer. He is intrinsically a modernist.
So he does this whole series of petal dresses, and they’re like his other clothing. Well, this is the reason he is so underrated in the history of fashion. On the one hand, he’s given a great historical role for being a quintessentially American designer, with a sportswear-driven method to his designs. But what people don’t really see is that behind that was a really fascinating approach to construction. His resolutions to many of these simple dresses that look like nothing are, when you deconstruct them, not comparable to anything anyone else was doing. I don’t believe anybody else did what he did in terms of some of those dresses, ever before him.
Even Madeleine Vionnet?
No. Vionnet never did a single-seam spiral. She did it in a sleeve, but did she do it in a dress? No. Balenciaga did; he did a few, actually. But Halston did it with the minimalist aesthetic.
And in modern fabrics. Didn’t he work mostly with silk jersey?
He was known for charmeuse, too. You’d see a simple chemise, and if you undid it, it was the most original form. Because it looks just like anybody else’s chemise, except that the way the bias fell over the body was calculated so that it disclosed the things that were attractive about a woman and masked the things she’d want masked. The petal dresses were so antithetical to his aesthetic of the finished garment—the simple T dresses, and caftans, and wrap dresses, and sarongs, the ease of those—that it didn’t seem to fit into his approach as a designer. I don’t think he was really comfortable with it.
He purveyed a very American aesthetic. But he isn’t considered the genius that he should be, because that genius is masked by the final manifestation. It looks like anybody else’s clothes.