Woman's Gown by Arnold Scaasi
Arnold Scaasi (1930-2015) donated this evening gown, used in his 1991 Autumn/Winter show, to the Historic Textile and Costume Collection in 1997. This was a remarkable year for the designer, in which he received the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, saw the publication of Scaasi: A Cut Above and was the subject of a retrospective at The New York Historical Society titled “Scaasi: The Joy of Dressing Up.” The year ended with his being honored as a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy “for his professional distinction and personal caring to preserve the ‘Best of New York City.’” In this year his company donated a “group of clothes from the important original couture collections of Arnold Scaasi” to “prestigious institutions” including the University of Connecticut, the Preservation Society of Newport County, and the Historical Society of Palm Beach County as well as URI.
Arnold Scaasi was a Canadian-born, Parisian-taught, American designer known for his flamboyant designs with bright colors, loud florals, and expert draping and shaping. He was incredibly successful throughout his schooling and apprenticeships and made his name early on with a collection of tailored coats and suits for Dressmaker Casuals in 1955. Even these everyday garments had his fanciful flare, with his signature unique matching linings for blouses and dresses. He worked for other businesses in his early career, while also doing custom work out of his New York apartment. Scaasi opened his couture salon in 1964 and would dominate American fashion for the next thirty years. His renown grew until he was one of the most sought after designers in North America for high society women and celebrities. It was not uncommon, at the height of his success, for upwards of forty guests to be wearing Scaasi, either couture or ready-to-wear, at a single event. He was known for giving his clients something that wasn’t being done by anyone else. Scaasi died in 2015 at the age of eight-five.
This dress is a heavy, flocked satin fabric in medium tone orange colors, quite a tame design for Scaasi, as he was known for mixing unusual fabrics and colors for eveningwear. It is likely the dress was in storage between its appearance in the 1991 fashion show and its 1997 donation to the HTCC, as no photos showing the dress on the runway, on a celebrity, or in any type of exhibition have been found.
The dress is in overall good condition, however the condition and construction on the inside is uneven in quality. The inside of the bodice has the most damage, either due to it being constructed fairly quickly or quick repairs or adjustments done to prepare the dress for the runway. There are no noticeable rips or holes in the skirt layers of tulle and the skirt lining appears to be in perfect condition. All hems, gussets, and sleeve gathers appear to have been handsewn, generally with a whipstitch, while the foundation seams have been sewn by machine.
Arnold Scaasi did not often make many distinctions between Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer collections. This dress was made of a heavy fabric patterned with paisley flocking, with multiple layers of stiff tulle for fullness, and an inner lining, likely silk. The satin is a medium shade of orange and the flocking is a darker red-orange color. The tulle is a bright red and the inner lining skirt is medium shade of red-orange.
This dress features a low, straight neckline and a seamless front. Bows cover each point where the sleeves connect to the bodice, one on either side of both the front and back. The sleeves are quite full and poufy, having been gathered and hand sewn with a whip stitch to give them shape. It is most likely that they were draped on a form or model and then cut and sewn rather than patterned. The sleeves could be worn on or off the shoulder. The Arnold Scaasi tag has been sewn into the proper left of the bodice next to the zipper. Eight pieces of boning around the entire waist support the bodice and give a corseted effect. A diamond-shaped gusset, cut on the bias, on each side of the bodice gives the dress its narrow waist.
The outer skirt has two side seams and one seam at the center back to allow for the inset of the zipper, with a lining of four pieces beneath. Both the outer and inner lining skirt have a horsehair trim. Layers of tulle begin about mid-way down the skirt to give the dress its fullness. White and black thread was used to attach the tulle, as it would be easier to find and adjust rather than using a matching thread. The multiple layers of tulle and stiffened hems of the outer fabrics would give a sort of floating illusion to the dress as the model walked the runway.
A tag in the center front hem of the outer skirt was sewn on upside down so when the skirt is lifted up by someone not wearing the dress, the tag is right side up. Handwritten on the tag is 9146. The number 91 likely indicates the year the dress was presented, 1991. The meaning of the number 46 is more unclear but could possibly indicate the position of the dress in the fashion show or that it was the forty-sixth garment made for the collection.
Scaasi was known for exciting and innovative designs and did not often create similar couture or runway garments. A 1992 couture gown with a comparable design was found on a designer vintage clothing website. Both gowns have the same full, a-line skirt, narrow waist, and poufy sleeves. Structurally, they both have horsehair in the hems, tulle for fullness, and silk inner linings with boning in the bodice. They are rather simple designs, visually, but stand out due to their unique and bold fabrics. This was a hallmark of Scaasi toward the end of his career; he shifted from intricate cuts to simpler shapes with more reliance on fabrics than on construction.
The dress in its entirety is reminiscent of styles past. Its flat, seamless bodice with a low, straight neckline, wide set sleeves, and corset-like boning is similar to dress styles seen around Europe throughout the 1500s. The fuller back of the skirt harkens back to the bustle, popular throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s in varying sizes; it is almost like a pared down version of the 1860s gowns that were flat in the front and larger in the back, creating a sort of elliptical shape. The oversized sleeves are similar to the dramatically poufy sleeves of the 1830s and 1890s but would not be out of place in the 1980s either. Scaasi seems to have pulled inspiration from throughout history to create a gown that exudes a general feeling of historic dress, while keeping it modern enough to be desirable to the contemporary woman.
This dress did not have much of a life. It seems to have landed in a one and done situation; worn for a fashion show, possibly photographed, and then more than likely placed in storage for six years. Donated to the HTCC, it was again stored in what is affectionately referred to as “The Scaasi Closet.” This gorgeous gown, a rich and distinct design, subtle and therefore more interesting in its contrast to Scaasi’s other louder designs, hasn’t been able to be loved. The dress has been admired and fawned over by all who have seen it since its re-emergence. It is much the same with Scaasi himself. His brand isn’t as well known by contemporary generations who weren’t dressed by Scaasi himself. Great clothes and great designers always deserve a second chance to be admired.
“C.1992 Arnold Scaasi Couture Deep Green Velvet & Embroidered Silver Thread & Sequin Dress.” 2021. Shrimpton Couture. Accessed April 12. https://www.shrimptoncouture.com/collections/designer-arnold-scaasi/products/c-1992-arnold-scaasi-couture-deep-green-velvet-embroidered-silver-thread-sequin-dress.
De Young, Justine. 2019. “1500-1509.” Fashion History Timeline. June 7. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1500-1509/.
Morris, Bernadine, and Arnold Scaasi. 1996. Scaasi: A Cut Above. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.
“Tudor Fashion.” 2021. Royal Museums Greenwich. Accessed April 24. https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/tudor-fashion.
Susan J. Jerome