Lauren Bacall, like many Old Hollywood stars, was made, not born. Her trademark downcast look wasn’t a come-hither ploy but rather a result of nervousness in front of the camera. Her voice, while naturally low, was exaggerated — director Howard Hawks made her pull her car over on Mulholland Drive and shout into the canyons to make it huskier. And her regal bearing belied an ordinary, middle-class upbringing in the Bronx. But her love of fashion was one thing that wasn’t the creation of a studio — even as a young woman, she bought Norman Norell’s designs on steep discount in Brooklyn, and she would later go on to have a close relationship with the designer, who costumed her for 1964’s Sex and the Single Girl. Bacall was also friendly with Yves Saint Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro.
Bacall donated 700 pieces from her extensive collection to the Museum at FIT before her death last year, and today the museum opens “Lauren Bacall: The Look,” the first exhibit devoted to her style. In addition to her standby Norell, the exhibit features designs from YSL, Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior. Accompanying the designs are images and film clips that run the gamut of Bacall’s career — most interesting, the little-seen Bacall and the Boys, a TV special on Paris fashions she hosted with the aforementioned designers. Directed by fashion illustrator Joe Eula, the 1968 program shows Cardin fitting her in a minidress in his proprietary futuristic fabric, Cardine.
Bacall’s immersion in fashion was due in part to the fact that she began her career as a model — and her 1943 cover of Harper’s Bazaar, shot by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, opens the show. “She had always wanted to be an actress, and then Diana Vreeland put her on the cover. She immediately got shows of interest from not only Howard Hawks, but also David Selznick and Howard Hughes,” explained Christina Frank, one of the FIT master’s students who curated the exhibit. “When you start off with Diana Vreeland, you’re going off in a good direction.”
The exhibit focuses mainly on the actress’s 1960s and 1970s attire, which is lesser-known than the trousers and shoulder-padded jackets she sported in the ‘40s. Still, she favored comfort throughout her life, telling Harper’s Bazaar in 2014, “Put a ruffle on me and I’m finished.” A silk damask pantsuit by Ungaro is an example of what she regularly wore at home — call it the original “soft dressing.” And one ensemble, a gold Norell sequined dress, is topped with the designer’s so-called “subway coat,” which allowed the wearer to ride the local without attracting too much attention and showing off too much glitz. High fashion that you can wear on the 6 train? It’s obvious Bacall was a New Yorker through and through.