In his photographic book Exposures, Andy Warhol called his friend and celebrity couturier Halston the “first All-American fashion designer.” Halston, who launched his own clothing line in 1966, was hardly the first “American” designer, nor was he the first American to chafe against the stuffy pretensions of Parisian haute couture. Elizabeth Hawes and Claire McCardell, for example, did so brilliantly in the 1930s and ’40s. But Halston, an Eagle Scout who, according to his niece Lesley Frowick, proudly flew the U.S. flag outside his home, made American style—its ease, its practicality, its inclusiveness—glamorous. He elevated the most humble shapes—the shirtwaist dress, the caftan, the Grecian column—with luxurious fabrics and a rigorous modernity, and put them on the era’s most beautiful people: Bianca Jagger, Jackie Kennedy, Liza Minnelli. He infused his couture with a pop sensibility, splashing a tie-dye print onto a pajama pantsuit, say, or adding fringe to a formal, beaded blouse.
Indeed, you could say that Halston did to American fashion what Warhol did to American art. He stripped it of its preciousness, embraced its commercial, mass appeal, and turned the designer into a celebrity. His work, attitude, and innovations continue to ripple through the industry. Just look at Donna Karan’s seminal Seven Easy Pieces collection, or Narciso Rodriguez’s sensual minimalism, or Marc Jacobs’s lavish runway presentations. They all owe an enormous debt to Halston.
A new exhibition, Halston & Warhol: Silver & Suede, which runs through August 24 at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh before traveling to the Des Moines Art Center in September, makes the case for Halston as the Warhol of American fashion. Curated by Frowick with the Warhol Museum, the exhibit examines the parallel lives and work of these two American icons through their art, collaborations, and friendship.
Roy Halston Frowick was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1932, the son of a Norwegian-American accountant. He displayed an interest in fashion at an early age, crafting costumes and headdresses from chicken feathers for his siblings and cousins at their family farm. Like many other great designers—most notably Coco Chanel—Halston started as a milliner, first in Chicago and then at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. His clients included Kim Novak, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Swanson. But it wasn’t until Jackie Kennedy wore a pink Halston pillbox hat to her husband John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration that Halston’s star really took off, and his inventive chapeau—pom-pommed cloches, monkey fur skull caps, wide-brimmed straw hats—began appearing regularly in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Halston had designed a few ready-to-wear clothing collections for Bergdorf’s, as well as Candace Bergen’s infamous black velvet and white fur bunny-masked ball gown for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball (which is included in the exhibition), by the time he launched his own business in 1968. But his first presentation still shocked the fashion world. Instead of somberly walking through a showroom holding numbered placards, Halston’s models strutted down the runway to music, clutching copies of the sensationalist pill-popping novel Valley of the Dolls. They wore no bras under their easy, loose dresses and pajama-like pants. The next morning, Halston arrived at his studio at 9:30, finding New York City’s most famous fashion plate, Babe Paley, outside his door, demanding he make her one of his argyle pantsuits, pronto.
Halston and Warhol met through mutual friends in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the ’70s that they began collaborating. The two had similar trajectories: both came from modest Midwestern households (Warhol grew up in Pittsburgh); both toiled as window dressers before making their names as a milliner and an illustrator, respectively; and both achieved fame through relentless ambition and a strong work ethic. Each experimented with new materials and technologies (plastic in Warhol’s case, and the synthetic, washable Ultrasuede in Halston’s), and each took delight in transforming the ordinary and mundane—Warhol with his Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes, Halston with his takes on the preppy cashmere sweater and the staid shirtdress. Most importantly, both could mix as easily with their upper-class patrons as they could with the hoi polloi and the drag queens, junkies, and rockers on society’s fringes—blurring the lines of class and taste and making way for changing sexual attitudes, women’s lib, and postmodernism.
Their first project together was the 1972 Coty Awards, for which the designer tasked the pop artist with producing a runway “happening.” Models cooked bacon and played the bongos. Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer tap-danced. Zaftig Halston muse Pat Ast popped out of a cake. Soon afterward Halston debuted an acid-hued cocoon-like draped silk dress based on Warhol’s famous “Flower” print. Warhol became Halston’s unofficial front-row photographer at the designer’s shows. He painted Halston’s portrait. They sent each other strippergrams and Muppets paraphernalia. They spent summers together at Warhol’s house in Montauk, playing Pin the Tale on the Donkey and hosting wild parties.
Unlike Warhol, however, Halston was unable to go mass without losing his credibility. His multiple licensing deals and a lower-priced collection for JC Penney tarnished his brand. (It wouldn’t be until Karl Lagerfeld’s 2004 collection with H&M that the fashion world would be ready to embrace high-low collaborations.) Furthermore, the simplicity of his clothes belied their technical virtuosity, their status. By the 1980s, Christian Lacroix’s ornate pouf skirt usurped Halston’s single-seamed halter, and new high-end clients clamored for the sorts of fussy, fancy designs that Halston had fought so hard against. He closed shop in 1984, though he continued creating custom designs for friends and family till his death of AIDS in 1990.
Of course, minimalism would return in the 1990s, and a crop of new, young designers who revered Halston would emerge: not just Karan and Rodriguez and Jacobs, but also Calvin Klein and Ralph Rucci and even Ralph Lauren, with his unabashed Americana. Silver & Suede, however, hammers home how amazing and timeless Halston’s creations remain. The exhibition includes some 60 garments by the designer—ranging from a cream-colored pillbox hat for Jackie O and sequined caftans favored by Liz Taylor and Martha Graham to mod-like vinyl jackets and his famous Ultrasuede shirtdress. They are all stunning. I practically salivated over a bias-cut blue silk gown with slit sleeves, as well as the full-length cashmere separates that were so simple yet so positively brazen in their sensuality.
Warhol sketches and paintings—some from Halston’s own collection—help contextualize the pieces, and illustrate the two artists’ shared obsessions and aesthetics. The show also includes videos of Halston’s runway presentations shot by Warhol, as well as photographs, gifts, and letters that reveal a mutual respect and close friendship.
But Silver & Suede does more than showcase Halston’s relationship with Warhol, or his enormous talent. By comparing him with the pop art genius, the exhibition solidifies Halston’s role as one of the great innovators and influencers not just in fashion, but also in American art and culture, period.