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First Look: ‘Notorious & Notable: 20th Century Women of Style’

“It’s more than the jewelry, it’s the women,” says Judith Price, president of the National Jewelry Institute. Price is referring to the Museum of the City of New York’s new exhibit “Notorious & Notable: 20th Century Women of Style” (opens September 14). The exhibit, co-presented with the National Jewelry Institute, showcases the stunning couture and exquisite bling worn by 81 famed female icons. From burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee and feminist trailblazer Bella Abzug to makeup mogul Helena Rubenstein and media powerhouse Barbara Walters, each and every woman highlighted was at one point a New York City resident.

“It’s a diversified group. We have women who were theatrical personalities, businesswomen, literary figures,” MCNY’s curator of costumes and textiles Phyllis Magidson told The Cut during a sneak-peek walk-through of the exhibit. “We have tremendous diversity with these women, and also in the fashions themselves — they really embody the profession and individuality of the wearer.”

The viewer is greeted immediately upon walking through the doors of the exhibit by the “Showstoppers” collection — or what Price calls “the pretty-big bling pieces.” Deeper in the room are themed showcases pertaining to women of “Power and Business,” “Old Society,” “New Society” and “Arts and Culture.” Price insists that in life, jewelry should be chosen and worn for more than aesthetic reasons, and that the selections in the exhibit are consistent with that outlook. "Jewelry should have meaning," she says. "Whether it’s related to a gift you got on graduation, a present you got to reward yourself. This is about the meaning, and about the art.”

Mannequins in various poses also line a long runway, down which the visitor must walk in order to take in the exhibit. “In celebration of Fashion Week, we're creating an experience for the viewer where they're walking the runway, and the spectators are the women that they're looking at,” explained Magidson. “Interestingly, many of the women in the exhibition would have been in the front row of fashion shows.”

The exhibit pieces span the entire twentieth century, with the earliest garment dating to the early 1900s and the latest from the nineties (sorry, Gaga). Included in the show is a 1985 hot-pink Yves Saint Laurent gown with a plunging neckline — “a risqué design,” says Magidson — made for Oscar de la Renta’s wife, Annette, alongside a “short, kicky” red twenties Balenciaga number worn by Gentleman Prefer Blondes scribe Anita Loos.

Also on view is a pink-and-cream Christian Dior minidress worn by heiress and socialite Sunny von Bülow, a dress that, according to Magidson, “is exemplary of what was going on in the haute couture in the late sixties, at a time when the life of the couture was being threatened by the counterculture.“ As Magidson explains, “In response to their protest against the military establishment, the moneyed classes were making their own clothes and tie-dyeing.” Doir chose to adopt “very youthful, vibrant colors” and bell sleeves, which were popular with California youth at the time. “It was a last gasp of the haute couture to stay relevant at a point when their real client base was disappearing.”

"Notorious & Notable" runs from September 14 through January 3 at the Museum of the City of New York.

Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

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