Women of fashion may sometimes be thought frivolous, but their very frivolities make fascinating footnotes in the history of their times. Alice Warder Garrett was one of the innovators. The former chatelaine of Evergreen House, the imposing mansion on North Charles Street, roared through the '20s in her fringes and tangoed through the '30s with a gusto that would make today's moderns blanch.
Visitors to the Evergreen House can now see how the privileged and creative Mrs. Garrett dressed and diverted herself and her social circle with the opening of a costume exhibit and lecture series this week. The mansion is a living museum, library and academic center of Johns Hopkins University, but what a dream it is. To walk the salons and see the bibelots this woman collected is to understand grand gestures.
"Songs in Costume: Alice Garrett and the Evergreen Theater," sponsored by the university, is an intimate look at her gowns, theatrical dress-ups and memorabilia lent by The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lectures discuss her world.
Alice Garrett was a generous patroness of the arts, but she was not content to merely dip into her seemingly bottomless purse.
She was a participant and gathered about her international lights in design, theater and music to lend their talents to enhancing her own. She was an enthusiastic amateur. Calling her a dilettante would seem unkind.
She studied music in Berlin, dance in Paris and, when she and her diplomat husband settled down in Baltimore society, she imported a wide circle of talents to Evergreen to keep her muse alive. Leon Bakst, the Russian stage and costume design genius, created folkloric draperies and backdrops for her and turned the estate gymnasium into a jewelbox little theater lavishly decorated in his signature style.
Her costumes were stitched up in Henri Bendel workrooms. Billy Baldwin helped her pick chintzes. Leopold Stokowski tinkled the ivories in her salons.
Mrs. Garrett was an exotic.
"The early part of the 20th century was all about fantasy and Mrs. Garrett's clothes were fantastic -- lots of exotica, lots of pseudo-Oriental extravaganzas. These are the kind of clothes that totally changed fashion in this century," says Valerie Steele, fashion historian and keen observer of the beau monde, who will kick off the lecture series Oct. 12. "Only a few years earlier, women had been wearing corsets and little pastel, ultra-feminine dresses. All of a sudden, instead of corsets, they took to wearing soft tango girdles and lounging about in pajamas on floor pillows and burning incense. It was almost hippiesque."
Mrs. Garrett floated through the international Bohemian set. John Work Garrett's diplomatic postings and B&O; Railroad fortune brought her to world capitals and world-class artistic eccentrics. She was particularly fascinated by Sergei Diaghelev's Ballets Russes with all its Thousand and One Nights opulence. The pearl-trimmed pantaloons, a jewel-encrusted bustier and feathered turban she commissioned for one of her musical evenings are on display at Evergreen.
One can almost hear conservative Baltimore tongues wagging.
"It was a dramatic way to break out of late Victorian straitjackets. Kind of funny that people did it by looking at fantasy and long-ago-and-far-away costume," says Ms. Steele, who will speak on "Fashion Revolution," an examination of the interplay of early 20th century French haute couture and theater costume. She will focus on the designers patronized by Alice Garrett -- Callot Soeurs, Chanel, Lanvin, Paquin and Worth.
Mrs. Garrett kept two wardrobes. For her stage-center theatrical evenings, where she was wont to sing lieder or click castanets, artists like Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias were invited to create folkloric peasant skirts and backdrops. When she stepped out, she was dressed by the legendary couturiers. Chanel was one of them. "She really was the single greatest fashion designer of the 20th century," says Ms. Steele.
"She was the first to present a very casual look -- to look like you were young and hip and didn't care. This was a very modern way of dressing."
In that sense, the thoroughly modern Mrs. Garrett and Coco seemed to be of a mind. "Chanel was also her own best fashion model," she says. "She combined the roles of genius designer which people like Paul Poiret held, and put it with the glamorous fashion model/celebrity female. Chanel was all of it rolled into one."
A study of chiffons, satins and egret feathers may seem an unusual pursuit for an academic, but Ms. Steele mines fashion on many levels.
"I was in graduate school at Yale. You know, it's very intimidating with all these brilliant professors who speak multiple languages and know everything there is to know about Hegel. In trying to make an impact, I heard a classmate give two lectures on the Victorian corset and I had this epiphany. I discovered that it was totally virgin territory for a historian and that there was very little scholarly work being done on the history of fashion. You could really make an impact."
The rest was fashion history. Ms. Steele has written on underwear, erotica, fads and fetishes. She says that while the forces of fashion are revealed over time, there are signs of the way we will be remembered in current monthly magazines.
The long view
"Fashion definitely says things about contemporary culture," says Ms. Steele. "However, the mistake most people make is to think that every single fashion season is going to be making a profound new statement. It is unreasonable to expect that there will be significant change in the fashion Zeitgeist every four months."
In the long view, she sees the '90s as reacting against the boom-boom, go-go, money, glitz of the '80s -- Lacroix poufs, Armani and Chanel suits. It was a very big-spending decade.
The '90s are a retreat from that in a sense of anti-fashion dressing. For a lot of people, that means the Gap -- real clothes as opposed to fashion. For the Fashionistas, that translates to a Prada uniform.
"I am extremely interested in what other people think aboutclothes. A lot of people will say to me they're not interested in fashion at all," she says. "Americans, especially, hold a tremendous prejudice against fashion, which is very powerful and pernicious. I'm just as interested to hear about that as to hear from somebody who's completely deranged on the subject of how much they love Prada."
The Prada look, so minimal as to seem like fashion anarchy, is as dramatic a change today as Mrs. Garrett's flowing draperies seemed to her corseted contemporaries.
A look at the past, however, is always a feast for the eye and Mrs. Garrett had one of the keenest fashion eyes in this century.
The Evergreen House fall lecture series, sponsored in conjunction with the exhibition "Songs in Costume: Alice Garrett and the Evergreen Theater," begins Oct. 12 at 6 p.m. with a talk on early 20th Century haute couture by Valerie Steele, history professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
* Nov. 15: "The Exotic World of Leon Bakst," a lecture on his costume and design by Jennifer Roth of Sotheby's Inc. 6 p.m.
* Nov. 29: "Period Influences on Contemporary Fashion and Couture," with Georgia Baker of Towson State University. 11 a.m. A fashion show and lunch featuring designs from Femme follows the talk.
Lecture admission is $12 for members, $15 for non-members. Lecture, fashion show and lunch on Nov. 29, $30 members, $35 non-members.
Call (410) 516-0341.