If there is a common thread connecting past and present throughout the course of fashion history, it's made of gold. That's the idea behind "Gold Fever," the current exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum's Fashion Design Gallery. Just by a casual flip through the pages of Vogue, dedicated followers of 21st-century fashion can see that the catwalks are in the midst of a Midas moment. But it's more than just a passing trend -- gold has been the mark of grandeur for centuries.
When it's incorporated into clothing design, this precious metal infuses a garment with significance. The most obvious meaning associated with it is sheer wealth, manifested in this show, for example, in a glitzy 1980s ensemble by Oscar de la Renta once worn by former first lady Nancy Reagan. Although the long, pleated plaid skirt and varsity-style jacket refer to all-American sportswear, the outfit oozes affluence, with a lace-patterned lamé blouse, alternating rows of gold and black bugle beads and sequins on the jacket, and the fine, expensive fabric of the skirt.
Dazzling couture outfits like this inspired the wardrobes of Power Decade socialites and became the look of the modern aristocracy, but even upper-class ladies of the 18th century loved the glimmer of golden ornamentation. A circa-1760 court gown exemplifies the luxurious French style popular for high-society functions: a narrow, fitted bodice and full, wide skirt made of a floral textile richly woven with metallic threads, trimmed in gold lace and dotted with clusters of jewels. Real gold was used to decorate such gowns, and few have survived fashion's winds of change because of parfilage, a special technique for extracting the metal from old lace and embroidery thread.
Visions of treasure chests filled with gold have inspired explorers for ages, and designers have drawn on that exoticism to give their designs a foreign flavor. Jean Louis' silk and Lurex jumpsuit from the 1980s translates the luscious drape and pattern of a traditional Indian sari into a decadent emerald-green frock shimmering with gilt paisleys, while another de la Renta dress from the late 1960s evokes Middle Eastern luxury. Images of untold riches even became a reality in the 1920s, when the discovery of King Tut's tomb spawned "Egyptomania." A black cotton dress from this era exemplifies elegant flapper style with large golden diamond shapes woven into the outer layer of sheer tulle.
It's clear from the garments on display that gold is historically imbued with much symbolic power. A gold leather coat designed by Tom Ford for Gucci looks like hard, shiny armor for an urban gladiatrix. The same warrior sensibility is apparent in the ornate traje de luces, a Mexican bullfighter's costume from the 1950s. Mariano Fortuny's 1920s "Delphos Dress," made of sinuous, pleated cream silk, celebrates the power of female sexuality and harks back to ancient Grecian goddesses. Even the golden silk brocade of an early 19th-century cope and chasuble, fit for an archbishop, makes reference to heavenly purity. Nothing less than divine power is here attributed to gold, and it doesn't seem like an exaggeration.