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On view through the summer, Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style, the first major showing of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s fashion and haute couture collection in over 30 years, tells the history of the city through clothing.

A museum exhibition showing rows of fancy gowns on mannequins.

Installation view of Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style, a fashion exhibit on view at the de Young Museum, San Francisco. Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Besides its bays, bridges, and cable cars, San Francisco is perhaps best known for its counterculture attitude. A focal point for the Beat Generation, the Civil Rights Movement, and LGBTQ+ activism, the City by the Bay has long been a hotbed for progressive thinking. In a new exhibition at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, audiences can see for the first time how San Franciscans expressed this rabble-rousing attitude through their clothes.


Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style brings together over 100 pieces of mostly women’s clothing from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s rich fashion collection, along with local loans of high fashion and haute couture. Although focused on the Bay Area, the exhibition features international designs ranging from French couturiers, Japanese avant-garde designers, and other mainstays of the fashion world including Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, Comme des Garçons, and more. GRAY toured the exhibition with its curator Laura Camerlengo, the curator in charge of costume and textile arts at the Fine Arts Museums, who explained that San Franciscans have long been fashion trailblazers.

GRAY: What was the overarching goal of this exhibition?

Laura Camerlengo: The idea was to look in snapshots at how fashion is woven into our social and cultural landscapes in San Francisco, while also celebrating moments of personal style that came up along the way. While the exhibition, of course, does not capture the entire story of fashion in San Francisco and the multiplicity of lived experiences here, the show is organized to hearken back to certain points in our socio-political history and connect it back to the city.

GRAY: How far back in San Francisco’s history does the exhibition go?

LC: The exhibition begins with the first gallery focusing on San Francisco after the great earthquake and fire of 1906. In the late 19th century, San Francisco had become a thriving metropolis, but the earthquake really laid the city bare. It was completely decimated. In the wake of disaster, people started bringing goods back to the city, including fashion. We see in news reports from the time that fashion became a way of showing the nation that San Francisco was a resilient city. It seems like fashion was a way for San Franciscans to announce their place in the world and their unique identity.

At the same time, throughout our history, we had a strong pattern of immigration into the city, particularly from France, so early department stores imported French goods for the immigrant communities here. We were also a city springing up in the 19th century with the rush of gold, so there was suddenly tremendous wealth. People had discretionary income, and there was a voracious public interest in the consumption of luxury goods. After World War II, San Francisco manufacturers and retailers gathered together to court the French fashion industry with the idea of reasserting French dominance in fashion on a global scale. As the war was ending, we saw newspaper reports celebrating the arrival of gowns from Paris because it suggested this return to normalcy in San Francisco. 

By 1947, manufacturers and retailers in San Francisco had signed exclusive trade agreements with the French fashion industry, giving them top access to the collections and exclusive rights to certain licensed designs. For that reason, women in the city who were shopping locally had amazing access to designers like Christian Dior, which is one of the strengths of our collection.

A mannequin against a white background is wearing purple slacks and a feathered jacket.

A 1998 jacket by French designer Jean Paul Gaultier is made from leather with peacock feathers, dyed bird-of-paradise feathers, dyed other feathers, and a silk plain weave lining. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mrs. John N. Rosekrans Jr., 2012.42.90. Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

GRAY: How did you approach the presentation of each piece in the show?

LC: Oftentimes when garments are styled for exhibitions, they harken back to the designer's vision or the way it was presented on the runway. In this case, we looked at as many photographs as we could find of the wearers in their clothes to style them to suggest the wearer’s personality. And then when we could, in the labels we noted who wore the garments, their general life dates, and where it was worn. The idea was really to celebrate the local history of women in particular, since as you know, often stories of female philanthropists are obscured in the art historical canon.  

GRAY: The exhibition is organized thematically around topics such as “Global Aesthetic Influences” and around clothing typologies such as formal wear, the women’s suit, and the “little black dress.” The garments are presented within displays that conjure architectural associations. How did you develop the exhibition design?

LC: When we first started having conversations with our exhibition design team, which is led by Alejandro Stein, and the designer for this project Julia Pike, we talked about how the clothes were worn in and around San Francisco. They were excited by this idea and the connections between the history of fashion and architecture here. Julia decided to root each section of the exhibition in the architecture of the city and connect it to an iconic landmark, such as St. Mary’s Cathedral and the War Memorial Opera House.

Two mannequins in a museum face each other wearing elaborate ball gowns.

Installation view of Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style, de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2024. Photograph by Gary Sexton, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

GRAY: We know that San Francisco has long been one of the most diverse cities in the country. How did you think about representing that diversity in this exhibition? 

LC: It’s true—by the 19th century, San Francisco had exceeded the ethnic diversity of most East Coast cities. Situated against this backdrop, our collection of costume and textile arts was formed quite broadly. It contains around 20,000 objects and spans from ancient Egyptian fragments to the present, with 125 countries and their cultures represented. I think it’s very much reflective of our place on the Pacific Rim and the patterns of immigration and migration here. Working with Abram Jackson, who is our director of interpretation, we decided to take a view of discussing select, nuanced examples of global influence and situating dynamics of power. We wanted to give situational context of when the garments were produced, giving our visitors enough information so they could make their own judgments, but also understand what led to these objects being made and how they were viewed at the time they were made. And then most importantly, to ask the question, how are we looking at these objects now?

A dress form wearing a blue tulle dress stands against a white background.

 A silk evening dress, ca. 1921 by designer Lady Duff Gordon. Gift of Nan Tucker McEvoy, 2005.153. Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

GRAY: What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?

LC: I hope people will appreciate how much San Francisco has always been connected, not only locally, but also nationally and internationally, to fashion and the arts. I hope it instills in our local visitors a great sense of civic pride. Today, where we are politically and socially as a nation, there’s a lot of dialogue about women’s history and evolving gender roles. This exhibition was a great opportunity to use our fashion collection to delve into some of those narratives about women and to elevate them. 

Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style runs at the de Young Museum through August 11, 2024.


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