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April 24, 2009

Private Tour of Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity

by Suzanne Reinhardt Kuhn
Mr. and Mrs. (Valentina) George Schlee, mid-1940s
Albumen silver print
Courtesy of the Estate of Valentina Schlee

This first ever retrospective of Valentina: American couture and the Cult of Celebrity opened at the Museum of the City of New York on 14 Feb, 2009 and runs through 17 May, 2009. The exhibit seeks to provide the missing link in the history of American Couture, by showcasing this legendary talent who has thus far been shrouded in mystery.

I was thrilled to attend a private curator-led tour of the exhibit last week. Having never heard of Valentina, my curiosity was definitely piqued. We were able to see designs she created around the same time Coco Chanel was revolutionizing women's fashion, however we rarely hear of this innovative designer and her extravagant lifestyle, nor how she too was revolutionizing how women dressed. Valentina was America's first couture designer, never creating a ready-to-wear line, only couture pieces for friends and those she deemed worthy of her creations. A character for sure, but a talented, creative and charming character!

Born in Kiev in the Ukraine, Valentina spent time in Europe as a dancer. When she arrived in America, Valentina Sanina Schlee, known professionally as Valentina, had a rudimentary knowledge of sewing. She seized the chance to reinvent herself in New York and show her many talents. She believed in timeless fashion, not fad, and her designs remain timeless to this day. Valentina is accredited with creating American Couture, and went on to create wardrobes of the rich and famous including actresses as Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Merle Oberon, as well as socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor, and Mrs. Randolph Hearst.

She also created the idea of modularity in dressing; add a bolero, and you've got a new look for your old dress. Add an apron or overskirt -- yet another look. One of the most amusing things in the exhibit is an interview clip with Edward R, Murrow, where she transforms her very stylish, elegant, gown into something more suited for dinner with friends. She unbuttons the neckline, tucks it in, pulls it slightly over her shoulders, then splits the overskirt to reveal two long apron strings which she pulls to the back, ties in a bow thus creating a modified bustle. The skirt underneath is a simple black sheath. The bonus is that you get to hear the charming Valentina herself describe what she is doing. The look is so creative and honestly wish I had it myself! To me, this was the mother of investment dressing. Buy a few pieces and be able to switch them up for a different look fits right in with today's lifestyle (and budgets.)

You'll also find a selection of her trademark tricorn and coolie hats, which really finish the looks beautifully. I'm a total sucker for old Hollywood and seeing clothing made for and worn by Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Rosalind Russell - all favorite actresses of mine - gave me great joy. The workmanship that went into these creations was remarkable; I can only dream to one day own my very own Valentina!

Phyllis Magidson, the museum's curator of Costumes and Textiles had the daunting task of choosing through the family's personal collection of clothing and photographs after Valentina's death, as well as acquiring other items for the exhibit. She did a remarkable job of presenting Valentina in all her glory, between the clothing and photographs of Valentina by the most renowned photographers of her day such as Horst, and Cecil Beaton, to the informative exhibit.

There is a book by the same title that coincides with the exhibit written by Kohle Yohannan, foreword by Harold Koda, and published by Rizzoli. It is available through the museum and can also be ordered online.

Croquis, 1947
Pencil and gouache on paper
Artist/Designer: Valentina
Costume design for Katharine Cornell as "Cleopatra"
Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Katharine Cornell

Katharine Cornell
Antigone (1946)
Olive green silk matte jersey, draped self scarf edged with wild mink
Designed by Valentina, fabricated by Karinska
Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Katharine Cornell, 65.100.48

Dinner Ensemble, late-1940s

Navy silk satin dress, matching bolero
Label: Valentina
Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Irene Worth, 86.63.3abc

Evening Dress, ca.1949-50Sapphire-blue silk velvet
Label: Valentina
Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Irene Worth, 86.63.2

Evening Gown, mid-1940s
Scarlet silk jersey one-shouldered gown, matching drape
Designed and made for donor by Valentina

John Lee
Valentina, early 1940s
Albumen silver print
Courtesy of the Estate of Valentina Schlee

Suzanne Reinhardt Kuhn is the editor of Idee Fix and's newest contributor bringing you the best in vintage style from New York. Look for more articles from Suzanne coming soon!

Photos © C. Bay Milin


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Comments (7)

Thank you so much for this wonderful wrap-up of your tour and the bio on Valentina.

One thing I love about her is that she had a habit of making up funny aphorisms like "Diamonds are for the suburbs." My friend found dozens of photos of her in the Life Magazine archives from 1952. Do check them out because they're great. (Though they may be reproduced in the catalog--which I REALLY WANT!);=source%3Alife

That interview clip w/Murrow sounds fantastic. I always wanted to see her design ethos in action.

Thanks, again!

Great post! Thanks so much for covering the exhibit - I'm out in California and desperately miss the Museum of the City of New York. Though I did cover one of their exhibits when I was there for a visit. Lucky you and the private tour!

Holly, they had loads of images by the best photographers of her day on exhibit, it was such a feast for the eyes! Another funny thing she said was "Mink is for football!" She thought it low-class, and had a skunk coat dyed to look exactly like one of her minks! Such a fun character! I watched the clip with Murrow about three times because I got such a kick out of it -- and her! I may break down and get the book, its one of those things I know I'll cherish and refer to forever!

Heather, sorry you're so far as well, this was so fantastic! I need to go back to museum and explore some more -- typical story of not taking advantage of what's in my own backyard!


Thank you for such a wonderful write up! I'll look forward to reading your next review!

Sandra Author Profile Page:

Heather, I'm out here in California too. I have to live vicariously through DC writer Suzanne. Sigh. I wish I could've been there. Maybe we can get a fraction of the experience through the catalog?

Each one of these pictures is more gorgeous than the last. Love this post!

Sandra Author Profile Page:

Glad you liked it Cafe Fashionista!

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