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From Nancy Reagan to Marilyn Monroe: James Galanos exhibit packs a punch

By Libby Allnatt

I must admit: Despite loving art, museums have always made me a bit uncomfortable. I know, I know. What kind of monster doesn’t like museums?

Nonetheless, over the years, I’ve trekked along with friends to the Phoenix Art Museum, squinting at the art and pretending to not hate the utter silence and vast open spaces.

I did so because the fashion section was always a beacon, the mannequins bringing art to life for me in a way the walls cannot.

All of this led me to the current “A Tribute to James Galanos” exhibit, running through January 2018, and I was not disappointed. Dozens of mannequins line the room, a blank-faced army showing off looks from the second half of the 20th century.

Galanos, who died last year, was known for pumping out designs like it was, well, his job, and sending loads of looks down the runway at his lengthy shows.

There are varying levels of modernity to the pieces, which helps make the fashions relevant to 2017 while simultaneously honoring the history of the unquestionably vintage pieces.

The thick waist-cinched coats, floor-length dresses and pops of color amid Galanos’ signature black palette seem as equally fitted for a First Lady as they do for a movie star. (Indeed they are: A gown worn by Nancy Reagan is on display, as well as a black get-up of Marilyn Monroe’s.)

The sheer panels splashed across several black ensembles, whether across the midriff or as sleeves, are reminiscent of today’s translucent trend donned by Urban Outfitters models and hipster music festival fanatics.


You would be hard-pressed to find either a flat or a stiletto in this bunch. Modest heels placed under the mannequins’ feet help enforce the accessible elegance that is characteristic of Galanos’ designs. (These heels would be hurricane-approved, Melania.)

But it’s not all business. A number striped in mint and white with a sharp square neckline looks more suited for a candy store than an inauguration or a red carpet. I can’t help but imagine a housewife twirling in it, the pleated pastel skirt swishing after the kids catch the school bus and her husband has embarked for work. You’re just as likely to spot a bright monochromatic look – from canary yellow to crimson red – as a splashy floral one.

The piece I was most drawn to was a cream-colored gown accented by a bodice bursting with shimmering floral-shaped trinkets. The straight silhouette of the floor-length dress evokes major nightgown vibes and makes this the perfect look for the most glamorous slumber party of all time.

This theme – simple on the bottom, party on the top – makes its way onto other gowns, creating a group of pieces fit for a modern prom, where many hip teens now opt for sleek silhouettes and matte fabrics over the tulle neon marshmallow-esque dresses of yesteryear.

Visitors also have plenty to stimulate the mind as they do the eyes. Sketches, magazine features and newspaper articles (including a 1991 piece from The Arizona Republic) on Galanos line the walls, offering valuable context and authenticity in a way that a typical wall-mounted biography or description wouldn’t.

Galanos was known for the utter sophistication and elegance of his designs, no matter the decade or occasion. Many of the ensembles carry pops of current trends, a demonstration of the remarkably cyclical nature of fashion, while also celebrating the vintage sophistication and simplicity of the past.

I suppose I like museums after all.


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