Earthly Delights

Although it's been several millennia since we abandoned the fig leaf as a form of dress, humankind hasn't been able to shake its spirit from the ever-evolving cycle of fashion. Phoenix Art Museum's new major exhibition "Garden of Eden" poses the question "Why do we wear clothes?", then demonstrates the essential answer — for adornment — with an incredible display of garments that prove the natural world is fashion's ultimate source of inspiration.

Dennita Sewell, the museum's curator of fashion design, explains why nature is such an obvious influence. "It's the thing that surrounds us the most," she says. "People have painted it. We live from it and with it, and enjoy its magic and its beauty — and man has continuously sought to emulate that beauty."

Even the most utilitarian clothes in the exhibition reflect the complex color palette of earthly abundance — leaves, berries, flowers, nuts and insects have been used since ancient times for dye pigments. And to go along with the changing of the seasons, outfits are shown in different colors for different times of the year.

But most of the clothing in "Garden of Eden" mimics nature more directly, whether it's through intricately patterned floral fabrics, detailed embroidered leaf-and-butterfly motifs, or the shapes of the garments themselves.

A large portion of the exhibition represents the brilliant colors of a flower garden, from the bright-orange flower-print silk chiffon of Bob Mackie's glamorous 1971 evening gown to the vivid shades of green in the circa-1963 printed silk taffeta dress by Marc Bohan for Christian Dior. Two important pieces from the museum's collection, "Petal" ball gowns designed by Charles James in 1951, actually look like giant rosebuds, with flowing skirts transformed into delicate blooms.

The sexiest clothes on display symbolize the untamed animal kingdom, including a slinky snake print dress in beaded turquoise silk crepe, from the Fall 2000 collection by Tom Ford for Gucci. Dolce & Gabbana's zebra-patterned lingerie makes a similar sensuous statement. And an early-1960s pale-green ostrich-feather dress from Guy Laroche, a recent museum acquisition, so remarkably resembles an exotic bird that it sparked Sewell's imagination and inspired her to create "Garden of Eden."

Sewell's sense of timing for the show is right on. In case you haven't noticed, nature is the hottest theme in fashion right now. It's immediately apparent when you first enter the gallery and see a dramatic white kidskin coat and boots by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton. The ensemble, amply embroidered with colorful flowers, was plucked straight out of the Spring 2002 collection.

"I think after September 11, everybody was just drawn to this theme again," says Sewell. "It's comfort; it's home. The natural way — it always goes back to that."

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig