Magpie and copyist

Iris Apfel at PEM, Mary McFadden at MassArt
By GREG COOK  |  November 24, 2009

INSPIRED Apfel seems to have never lost the excitement of a young girl playing dress up.

“Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel” | “Valérie Belin: Made Up” | Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem | Through February 7

“Mary McFadden: Goddess” | Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave, Boston | Through December 5

If you were going to recount the evolution of hippie guy fashion, you might say that what began with psychedelic ruffled shirts and corduroy pants in 1968 has in late middle age split into two streams: collarless white button-down shirts, usually buttoned right up to the neck and worn with a black vest, and Hawaiian shirts. Both still signal rebellion — the collarless shirt announces: "I'll dress up, man, but I won't be constrained by your collar" — but it's rebellion softened into something a guy can be comfortable wearing day in and day out.

Guy fashion isn't renowned for its invention, but this narrow range clarifies the corresponding ideas in women's couture that are illustrated in "Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel" at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum and "Mary McFadden: Goddess" at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. To put it simply (and somewhat simplistically): McFadden's refined designs parallel those collarless shirts, whereas Apfel's flamboyant wardrobe mirrors those guys sporting Hawaiians.

The 88-year-old Apfel, as a friend of mine noted, seems to have never lost the excitement of a young girl playing dress-up. She worked as an interior decorator and with her husband ran a firm specializing in exact replicates of antique textiles, but she's not a fashion designer. She's known for what she wears, and the PEM catalogue suggests that this little old New York lady with her signature giant black round glasses has grown only brighter and bolder over time. Last year, she was named to Vanity Fair's "International Best-Dressed List."

Organized by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Rare Bird of Fashion" showcases Apfel's taste in more than 80 ensembles from her own wardrobe. They're arranged in themed displays that recall fashion-magazine spreads — a nightclub, a circus, a North African or Middle Eastern bazaar. It's a mix of haute couture, flea-market finds, and pieces brought back from adventures abroad.

Some outfits seem distinctly of their era, like a 1980s pink wool jacket with the signature poufy sleeves of that decade that Jules-François Crahay designed for Lanvin, or a circa 1968 pink silk organza baby-doll party dress from Nina Ricci. Others suggest how styles go in and out of fashion, like a 1960s Donald Brooks black feathered dress with a flapper vibe.

Some are delightfully strange: a 1980s Carlo Ferrini black, white, and gray wool coat that looks as if it had been made of skinned sock monkeys; a 1990s Jean Paul Gaultier black-and-white plaid wool jumpsuit with white fur around the collar and cuff that looks like something a Who in Whoville might wear. And then there's a 1980s silk dupioni taffeta "cocoon wrap" by Lanvin that resembles an import from the Emerald City. Like many of the outfits here, it displays Apfel's taste for full tops and skinny legs.

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