"She said, 'Yes, it's fine, as long as it's high-quality —
Throughout her years, Bacall hadn't forgotten the fashion editor who plucked her from a
And next spring, Steele's museum — with the help of FIT graduate students learning how to curate — will fulfill its promise in a show focused on five designers who helped define Bacall's subtle seductiveness, her sophisticated mix of classic femininity and raw masculine authority in fashion.
Bacall, who died Tuesday at 89, was a fashion darling of a unique sort. A model at 16, later a pal of
"She really epitomized this idea of effortlessness. It's like she never was trying too hard and I think that sometimes is the most difficult thing to achieve," said designer
"That gaze, the voice, the hair. It was just that confidence. That was something that I think men and women alike could relate to," he said.
Among Som's favorite Bacall fashion moments is a casual one from 1946. She's leaning in a photo on a bent knee propped on a stool near a fireplace in a wool trouser and loose turtleneck suit designed by
"She was the opposite of
In fashion, on-screen and off, Bacall was the grown-up, even as a teen, said Som and others.
"There's this dress, what appears to be a pale gray sleeveless dress with a loosely draped halter top, and it turns out to be her wedding dress," he explains.
After a hurried wedding, she goes into an airplane bathroom and changes, emerging in a stretchy navy day look, a mink stole wrapped around her shoulders with a hat and leather gloves.
"That transformation, it's amazing. It kind of demonstrates her simple, exquisite glamour," he said.
It's the kind of transformation that led Steele to include in the upcoming exhibit a Norell dress done up entirely in hand-sewn gold sequins with a matching camel-color cashmere coat that's plain on the outside but lined with matching sequins on the inside.
"Once you take the coat off, it's va-va-va voom," she said, "but covered up with the coat and you can wear it on the subway as just a simple little thing."
The exhibit on FIT's
"Wearing a 50-year-old Fortuny dress proved how smart
Style and beauty expert
"Bacall made it sexy for all women to wear casual clothes. She would wear them in such a glamorous way," she said. "She played up her makeup, hair and jewelry, all while wearing pants, button-down shirts, knits and flats."
There were few who so successfully managed such a sexy masculine edge while also being capable of full-on glam, Steele said.
"She wore the dress or the pants. They didn't wear her," she said. "Some of what she wore didn't look prim but it might have on others. Sometimes it was conservative-looking, but she wore it with such panache. It was a combination of
Bacall was never elevated to muse for any one designer. Plenty, though, where touched by her style over the decades:
Karan, in an email Wednesday, pointed to Bacall's sophistication and strength as someone who "inspired us all, especially those of us in the fashion world."
Lauren said in an email that Bacall's fashion legend relies on glamour that is "beautiful, bold and independent."
As Som put it of his standout favorite that has Bacall at that fireplace in trousers and sweater: "It's kind of a butch pose, you know, but she was just so cool. She was a real dame, an old soul even back then, with an innate sense of how to wear things, or not. How she carried that off was magic."
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