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Lessons from FIT's New Exhibit: Lauren Bacall Was an O.G. Sample Sale Shopper


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A mere mention of "The Look" in the same sentence as Lauren Bacall is enough to know precisely which "look" is being referred to: chin down, eyes up, bold lips, bolder brow. It was the face that propelled her from teenage fashion model to Hollywood film star, and also the title of the Museum at FIT's latest exhibit, which opens today, "Lauren Bacall: The Look." Among the many things the exhibit reveals about the actress—a born-and-bred New Yorker and all-around badass—was that she was a big fan of scouring for designer samples at discount stores (classic Hollywood icons: they're just like us!)

Organized by graduate students at the school, the exhibit includes about a dozen garments chosen from the 700 that Bacall herself donated to the museum from 1968 to 1986, and was well underway before the actress's death last summer. The gallery includes print materials from Bacall's breakout moment covering the March 1943 issue of Harper's Bazaar—all thanks to Diana Vreeland—and a clip from her first film role in 1944's To Have and Have Not, where she starred alongside her then–future husband Humphrey Bogart.

It was during this role that "The Look" was born: "She was nervous while filming and would tremble during production," explains curator Laura Matina of the 18-year-old Bacall, "So in order to steady herself, she would hold her chin down and look up from beneath her lowered lashes. It was an affectation that she would adopt and Hollywood would promote as ‘The Look.'"

Left: Norman Norell, coat and two-piece dress designed for Sex and the Single Girl, wool, rhinestones, 1965, USA. Gift of Lauren Bacall; Right: Pierre Cardin, dress, Dynel (Cardine), 1968, France. Gift of Lauren Bacall.

Towards the back of the gallery, you'll see a ten-minute clip of "Bacall and the Boys," a 1968 CBS televised special that sought to bring Parisian fashion into the American living room. In it, Bacall, then in her 40's, models various looks alongside their creators: Marc Bohan of Christian Dior (who made the black dress pictured below), Pierre Cardin (designer of the pink dress above), Yves Saint Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro. 

Left: Yves Saint Laurent, evening set, silk organza, sequins, beads, fall 1969, France. Gift of Lauren Bacall. Right: Christian Dior by Marc Bohan, evening dress, silk jersey, ostrich feathers, spring 1968, France. Gift of Lauren Bacall.

You'll notice that the garments featured in the exhibit—mostly from the '60s—aren't from the era in which Bacall was most active in her film career. "It's not really the period that people think about when they think of Bacall," Matina says, "But we had this great opportunity to show 'Bacall and the Boys' and to pay tribute to her style this way."

That style—aptly coined by Bacall herself as "studied carelessness"—remained mostly the same throughout her life: She preferred simple, easy, often menswear-inspired clothes ("Put a ruffle on me and I'm finished," she once said), accented by soft waves and natural brows that she refused to tweeze, even during her earlier films when Marlene Dietrich's barely-there brows were considered the ones to copy.

Norman Norell, evening set, cashmere, silk jersey, sequins, circa 1958, USA. Gift of Lauren Bacall.

And about those sample sales: Bacall's love of the New York-based designer Norman Norell began during her teenage years in Brooklyn. "She'd been shopping from him even before she knew him," says Matina. "They'd send the samples over to Loehmann's [the original store in Crown Heights], and they were sent there named after the models that they were fitted on. People could call in and say ‘Oh, I'm looking for the Denise,' and so she'd go and shop when they'd come in when she was a teenager. And even when she could afford to shop elsewhere, she'd still go there."

"Lauren Bacall: The Look" will be on view through April 4th.

Museum at FIT

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