There is chatter all around. Near the ice-blue evening gown of silk satin with chinchilla cuffs, and the duo of gray Madame Gres day dresses, and by the case with the striking, gold metal comb looking like an ornamental piece of sculpture. This is "Fashion Independent: The Original Style of Ann Bonfoey Taylor" at the Phoenix Art Museum, and people are talking in the usually subdued Steele Gallery — not just about the fashion, but the woman whose life is cast center stage.
What makes this show successful is that it pairs remarkable clothing with a remarkable life. It is the coupling of a collection by masterful designers mixed with the personal story of an intriguing female character.
New Times art
"Fashion Independent: The Original Style of Ann Bonfoey Taylor" is on display in the Steele Gallery at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave., through May 29. Visit phxart.org for more information.
To that end, filmmaker David Boatman created a bio to accompany the exhibition. It includes interviews with friends, family, and fashion experts. Start there to get the backstory, or just glean it through the descriptive text and many large photographic displays that are an integral part of the presentation.
Never heard of Ann Bonfoey Taylor? (No, there's no relation to the clothing store chain Ann Taylor.) Never mind. After seeing this show, it will be hard to forget her. Her life plays like that of a female James Bond (minus the assassinations). She's cool, impeccable, elegant, and at the center of the action — not on the sidelines.
Born in 1910, Ann was raised in Quincy, Illinois. At the age of 12, she began flying lessons and learned how to pilot planes. Married at 18 to James Cooke, the young couple settled in Stowe, Vermont, where Ann learned to ski so well that she earned herself the nickname "Nosedive Annie" and was invited to train for the 1940 Olympic ski team.
As World War II broke out, Ann's athletic dreams were dashed (due to a canceled Olympic games) and her marriage fell apart. As a divorcee and mother of two, she became employed as a flight instructor to young Navy and Army pilots headed off to war.
At the end of the war, she switched gears entirely — taking up designing skiwear. What began as a cottage industry with a couple of seamstresses in the back of her house developed into a business that ultimately gained her exposure in Harper's Bazaar.
A couple of years later, in 1947, she began a whirlwind romance with Vernon "Moose" Taylor Jr. and started a new chapter in life as full-time wife and mother. They become a "golden" couple — athletic and stylish — making homes in Denver and Vail, building a house at the top of a ski run.
The exhibit, curated by Phoenix Art Museum's Dennita Sewell, was made possible in 2008 when Vernon Taylor Jr. and family donated Ann's extraordinary wardrobe to the Phoenix Art Museum. This was quite a coup for the museum, as the collection was called one of the top 100 museum gifts of the year by Art & Antiques magazine.
"Fashion Independent" features 60 pieces of haute couture that Ann Bonfoey Taylor wore over her lifetime. There are four main designers in the collection: Charles James, Cristobal Balenciaga, Madame Gres, and Hubert de Givenchy, a foursome that represents the halcyon days of haute couture. What makes this exhibit so unique is to have a wardrobe survive from that period in such great condition and with the benefit that not only did Ann Bonfoey Taylor collect these pieces, but also she was photographed and documented wearing them — which adds an entirely different visual dimension to the show.
In a conversation with New Times, Sewell mentions that Ann Bonfoey Taylor is a style icon who hadn't been reconsidered in recent times but was featured in 19 articles and editorials between the 1930s and '70s, and she was photographed by such fashion photography heavy-hitters as Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Edward Steichen, and Toni Frissell.
This was a woman who needed to move, and the striking thing about these ensembles is that they pair sophistication and flair with movement and physicality. None of them appears structured for immobility. They appear structured to let a woman take flight — to tackle the next adventure.
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Taylor enjoyed a long life (she lived to be 97) and recognized the essential value of her wardrobe. The clothes were stored beautifully in drawers with tissue packed between each layer. Sewell says it's remarkable that Ann "not only selected the clothes beautifully, but cared for them beautifully as well."
Each piece seems carefully considered. Solids — grays, blues, dark greens — dominate over patterns. Many of the necklines are simple and without adornment, perfectly designed to showcase jewelry. These are pieces designed to be grand backdrops for grand jewels. The color palette is tight and selected. Ann Bonfoey Taylor had such an athletic frame that she didn't need embellishments — she wore the clothes so well.
This is a fashion exhibition that operates on more than one level. It directly presents the skiwear designs by Taylor herself in her Ann Cooke skiwear line from the 1940s. It is the intimate peek into the closet of a collector of haute couture. But it is also fashion as powerful personal expression. One in which clothing is so connected to biography.
As Ann Bonfoey Taylor herself might say, "Long skirts at night . . . Large cuff bracelets . . . Always brooches."