Millennial fashionistas may think that Calvin Klein and Donna Karan are the formative names of high-end American ready-to-wear, but how would Mr. Klein and Ms. Karan have fared—or, before them, Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass and Halston—had Norman Norell not cut the path? Norell was America’s first Fashion Avenue icon, a designer who negotiated his name onto the manufacturer’s label in 1941 (it read “Traina-Norell”) and began turning out ready-to-wear clothes of improbable custom quality. By the time he got his own backers in 1960—the label now reading “NORMAN NORELL New York”—it was a name that meant faultless proportions and extravagant attention to detail, stitched, no less, by the ladies of the garment workers’ union. Born in Indiana (like Cole Porter ), Norell was The Top, his work synonymous with New York, its matter-of-fact glamour and singular sophistication. So it’s no surprise that Norman Norell is a continuing obsession of those in the know.

For those not in the know, the Museum at FIT’s retrospective exhibition, “Norell: Dean of American Fashion,” is a wake-up call. Guest curator Jeffrey Banks, a longtime Norell devotee who is himself an award-winning designer, has teamed with MFIT’s deputy director Patricia Mears, and together they’ve arranged 100 ensembles and accessories into a salute that is as direct and distilled as a Norell design. Indeed, the introductory gallery is staged with a pageant of garments, “snapshots” that display the handful of themes upon which Norell would spin infinite variations. Norell knew what he liked and worked it. Sailor suits and full skirts. Big bows and big belts. The drop-waisted flapper shape of the ’20s and the silken slink of the ’30s. Menswear-wool suits of crisp hand and impeccable hang. Cocktail dresses of sleek self-containment. And for stopping the show? Upside-down ostrich feathers, mink trim, color blocks of bugle beads and galaxies of sequins.

Asked how he fell for Norell, Mr. Banks answers: “My first Norell in person, in the corner window of Julius Garfinkel, was a sequined black turtleneck top with a huge layered tulle ballgown skirt. In-between the layers of tulle was sequined embroidery resembling exploding fireworks. I went by that window every day for a week—to gaze.”

And gazing is what this show is about. The curators have kept the mise-en-scène simple, bathing the space in a moody marine blue that stands up to Norell’s saturated color palette and feels like twilight in the city, when lamplights are just coming on. The garments are grouped according to theme, and while there are eight Traina-Norells, most of the work comes from the 1960s, Norell’s glory years.

The two earliest pieces in the exhibition—a candy-striped silk gown with deep godets and a white capelet (1932) and a teal gingham sheath (1939)—come from Norell’s pre-Traina tenure at Hattie Carnegie, a New York fashion house that sold licensed copies of Paris couture. This is where Norell learned the construction and couture techniques he would so deftly absorb into ready-to-wear. (A day dress from 1965, turned inside-out, reveals an interior of sumptuous finish.) Like Cristobal Balenciaga, Norell was a hands-on creator with little interest in empire. What he wanted was to refine his patterns and dress his women, many of them stars of stage and screen ( Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Cher) and in society ( Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, Lyn Revson ).

The great Norells are present and accounted for. A gala gown of 1968, white organdy and taffeta with a back-draped sailor collar, navy-blue belt, red satin bow, and balloon sleeves—is practically celestial. A suit of fawn wool herringbone—its high-collared coat cinched over stovepipe pants—is timelessly scaled, as fresh today as it was in 1970. And the low scooped back on a black-and-silver sequined tank dress of 1965 is not only as perfect as a compass curve, it falls in perfect plumb, amazingly free from the body.

Fascinating, too, is the air of innocence that attends so much of Norell’s work. This worldly man loved to appropriate tropes from children’s clothes, tucking women into little cape jackets and big pilgrim collars, and oh those rows of buttons on double-breasted coats and suits, like “little girls in two straight lines.” Even when Norell swings from day to night it feels less like a move from innocence to experience than from composition to cadenza.

Which brings us to the “mermaids,” Norell’s incomparable body-skimming gowns of silk jersey, hand-stitched with sequins so that the dresses shimmer richly and move with the musculature. In lore, mermaids symbolize imagination, a swim in the subconscious, and whenever a Norell mermaid turns up in a fashion exhibition it steals the show for sheer purity of design. Grouped in the center of the gallery under a huge waterfall chandelier, Norell’s mermaids flash violet, silver, dark blue, forest green, black and gold, the stuff of myth. Women clothed in planes of light—no one has done it better than Norell.

—Ms. Jacobs writes about culture and fashion for Vanity Fair.



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