When Bill Blass was 9 and 10, he made some intricate crayon drawings of the type parents love to save. Rather than fighter jets or cars, though, Blass rendered in loving detail a jolly golfing party at the country club, no two pairs of patterned pants the same. In a cafÈ scene, revelers drink root beer from decorative metal glass holders of the same style and color as the soda shop chairs. These drawings are among the most charming pieces in a retrospective show of many charms at the IU Art Museum, Bloomington: Bill Blass: An American Designer.
Work by Bill Blass is on exhibit at the IU Art Museum. Blass is pictured with his dog Barnaby.
Though Blass dreamed early of escaping Indiana - his high school bus passed the plaque marking Carol Lombard"s childhood home in Ft. Wayne - he carried with him a Midwestern serenity and charm that were no small part of his success. When his teen-age fashion drawings won a design contest in Chicago in 1941, he was on his way. The usual comment about the Bill Blass style is that it is "timeless." To gauge the accuracy of this remark just try to identify the era of his clothes while walking through the exhibit (which is not chronological). You might see a black and white Prince of Wales pant suit from 1993 and think Kate Hepburn would have looked great in it. Surely one can separate the "60s from the "90s? "I think even experts have trouble with that task," says Kathleen Rowold, curator of this exhibit and the Sage Historic Costume Collection. Blass dedicated his work to simplicity and comfort, designing clothes that women actually could wear. According to Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, Blass was "very clever at making ritzy-looking clothes out of simple fabrics, and simple-looking clothes out of rich ones." Although there is an abundance of rich fabric here, one section of the exhibit distills the essence of good design entirely in black and white. Blass derives a prodigious variety from texture and pattern, layers and transparency. On a floor-length silk dress, the flower pattern reverses from black to white and the effect is magical. Blass was deeply influenced by style he saw in movies during childhood, so perhaps his ur-vision of elegance and chic etched itself in black and white. Absent here are the horrors designers visit on their victims in the name of originality, such as Bjork"s infamous Oscar gown featuring a dead swan. Even when Blass patterns a dress after as gaudy a source as the art of Gustav Klimt, the effect is still a very tasteful and restrained Art Deco study in mauve and taupe. His whimsical touches remain muted and witty, like buttons made from sealing wax impressions of Blass" double-B logo. By the end of the show, you know Blass has gotten around any defensiveness about fashion when you hear men saying out loud, "Look at this Amish quilt fabric!" The IU Art Museum is located on Seventh Street next to Showalter Fountain. It"s open from 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday and 12 to 5 on Sunday. Visit the Web site at indiana.edu/~iuam or call (812)855-5445.