“I’m moving to Pittsburgh,” Manhattanite Steve Bolerjack declared in January 2001 in a column in “The New York Blade,” which was later collected in “Pride, Politics & Plague: Gay Life in Millennial New York City” (2011). The reason for Bolerjack’s “decision,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise, was of course the American version of the series “Queer as Folk”
“Who needs New York when the old steel queen city now boasts incredible male bodies gyrating at Club Babylon, enormous apartments just waiting for a visit from ‘Architectural Digest,’ and hip, trendy gay neighborhoods pulsating with sexual energy ’till all hours?,” Bolerjack rejoices. However, already in the next paragraph he realizes: “Well... wait a minute. I’ve been to Pittsburgh. I’ve even been out dancing in Pittsburgh. And either I missed something or... could it be that ‘QAF’ has used some dramatic license?” Asking the question is answering it.
But if the “incredible male bodies” and the “sexual energy” don’t pull one to Pittsburgh, this city is also Andy Warhol’s native town and houses the Andy Warhol Museum. At the moment this museum shows the exhibition “Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede,” which examines the interconnected lives and creative practices of Andy Warhol and Roy Halston Frowick - two American icons who had a profound impact on twentieth century art and fashion. Both were outsiders, one from Pittsburgh and one from Iowa, whose skyrocketing career trajectories in New York boldly challenged the status quo and placed their names in media headlines.
Born within four years of each other, Halston (born 1932, Des Moines) and Warhol (born 1928, Pittsburgh) had similar beginnings to their careers. Both started out as window dressers for department stores before relocating to New York City where they each found early success in their chosen fields. The two men first met in the early 1960s, but it was nearly a decade later that they developed a close friendship and began a creative dialogue that continued until Warhol’s death in 1987. Halston died three years later.
“Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede” juxtaposes Halston’s designs and Warhol’s artworks to explore their shared interests and influences while also revealing aspects of the social context in which they lived and worked. From Warhol’s Factory and Halston’s Olympic Tower showroom to Studio 54, Halston and Warhol helped cultivate environments where art and fashion intersected. They shared a vision for how art, design, and business could coexist and found themselves at the very center of a new high/low culture they had helped create.
Halston’s profile in American fashion was immediately elevated when Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994) asked him to design her hat for the celebrations of the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Halston’s pale pink pillbox hat was seen by millions as Jackie’s image was broadcast on television and circulated in print.
Deeply affected by the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, Warhol began a series of portraits of the widow. Based on eight different reproductions from newspapers and magazines, these portraits were shown individually and in groups. The shifting images created a cinematic effect and transformed the historical narrative into a series of affecting moments.
The initial exhibition of the “Jackies,” which entailed a single profile image repeated forty-two times, occurred at the Leo Castelli Gallery almost one year after the assassination. Even long after the event, Warhol was amazed at the power that the image held: “As we walked through the galleries every person recognized Jackie.
They didn’t come too close. They stopped for a minute, looked, and whispered. You could hear her name in the air: ‘Jackie. Jackie.’ It’s a very strange feeling. There is so much awe and respect for her. Being with her is like walking with a saint.”
Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Halston and Warhol developed a close friendship and professional relationship that resulted in collaborations, commissions and projects inspired by each other’s work. They opened up a dialogue across the fields of art, design, and fashion that was pioneering for the time and continues to exert considerable influence on contemporary culture.
Their first collaboration occurred in 1972 when Warhol was invited to create Halston’s runway presentation for the Coty Awards. Billed as “An Onstage Happening by Andy Warhol,” the performance brought Halston models (later termed “Halstonettes”) and Warhol “Superstars” together in a bizarre spectacle that Warhol also captured on video. The intermingling of their respective milieus continued the following year when Halston models Pat Cleveland, Nancy North, and Karen Bjornson were cast in Warhol’s experimental soap opera “Vivian’s Girls.”
In 1974, Halston commissioned Warhol to paint his portrait and also created an evening dress with a print derived from Warhol’s iconic Flowers paintings. Other notable projects included Warhol’s first foray into broadcast television, “Fashion,” 1979, which featured an episode devoted to Halston, and Warhol’s 1982 advertising campaign for Halston menswear, accessories, and cosmetics.
The casual elegance of Halston’s designs helped to define a new American style and revolutionize fashion in the 1970s. His understated, comfortable clothes were a departure from the conservative, heavily tailored forms of the 1950s and the disheveled, hippie look of the 1960s. Clean lines and luxurious fabrics became his signature.
A connoisseur of traditional haute-couture dressmaking techniques, Halston developed fresh new designs based on both Western and non-Western forms. His elongated cardigan with coordinating sheath was drawn from the classic 1950s twinset; his Ultrasuede shirtwaist dress was based on a man’s collared shirt; his caftans in diaphanous silk chiffon were translated from Near Eastern clothing; and his narrow column of fabric tied at the bust echoed the drape of Grecian robes. Halston transformed the staple of every man’s wardrobe, the tailored business suit, into a relaxed pantsuit for women. Even pajamas, traditionally not worn outside the home, were refashioned into elegant eveningwear.
These garments appeared deceptively simple. In fact, the construction often employed complicated folding, draping, and cutting. Fit and comfort were paramount to Halston. He was famous for shifting the attention away from the look of a piece to the way it felt on the body and was known to run a swath of fabric along his cheek to ensure it had just the right softness.
Halston’s charm and genuine appreciation for his customers engendered lasting friendships with them. Like Warhol, Halston recognized the power of personality: “Women make fashion. Designers suggest, but it’s what women do with the clothes that does the trick.” As his career advanced so did his association with the glamorous elite, including Warhol’s friends and clients Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger, and Liza Minnelli.
Envy and Criticism
By the 1980s, Halston’s casual elegance had become a sought-after brand. His business was growing and with that success came licensing agreements for ready-to-wear designs. In 1982 Halston struck an unprecedented deal to market his brand with the American retailer J.C. Penney, which he saw as a way to bring sophisticated design to the heartland. “What I always wanted to do was dress America,” he professed, “and being a dreamer, a romantic, in a way, I thought, ‘What a wonderful idea.’” The deal, although common today, was received with great skepticism and caustic criticism by the fashion elite. Bergdorf Goodman, the store that had carried his label for twenty years, announced that it would no longer sell Halston clothes and fragrances, fearing that J.C. Penney had diluted his cachet.
In the late 1970s, Warhol also became the target of unfavorable criticism due, in part, to initiatives like “Interview” magazine, which broadened his appeal beyond the art world. His 1979 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art was famously panned in Time magazine by Robert Hughes: “Warhol’s admirers, who include David Whitney, the show’s organizer, are given to claiming that Warhol has ‘revived’ the social portrait as a form. It would be nearer the truth to say that he zipped it into a Halston, painted its eyelids and propped it up in the back of a limo, where it moves but cannot speak...” Warhol’s pithy response to the review: “They gave me two whole pages. With three photographs. In color.”
As documented in Warhol’s 1980 book “Exposures,” which included a chapter on Halston, the artist’s and designer’s interconnected social lives provided a platform that fostered intersections between the worlds of art and fashion.
In April 1977, Steve Rubell’s Studio 54 opened its doors and quickly became the playground for the rich, beautiful, young, and undiscovered of New York. High society mingled with low on its dance floors. In Warhol’s words, “It was a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the floor,” and the challenge of gaining admission and making it past the infamous velvet rope, was part of its appeal. Warhol became a regular at the nightclub - his presence there brought him fame in the tabloids and gossip columns, making his name synonymous with the New York nightlife.
Halston had always been a reclusive and was little know at large. “Halston wouldn’t dare to go out,” Joe Eula, who worked for Halston as an illustrator, once said. “Halston never went out a day in his life, unless it was under cover or under a great shroud.” Eula had gone to the opening of Studio 54 and the next night and the next. “From the minute the door opened, you could smell success,” he reminisced later. “There was nowhere else to go. You had that thing on Fourteenth Street where people put fists up asses. Crazy places. So I was coming in in the morning and I would have to sleep for five minutes because I had come straight from 54. This literally the first week.” Halston was intrigued and eaten alive by curiosity. Within a week after the nightclub’s opening, he arranged a private party to celebrate Bianca Jagger’s birthday. While only a few photographers were allowed access to the event, images of Bianca’s dramatic entrance on a white horse were leaked to the press, and Studio 54 was an instant sensation. After this glamorous introduction, Halston became a part of the coterie that would sweep Studio 54 up to the next level. He was also often found in the VIP section with Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger, two of his regular clients.
Before the flash of the paparazzi bulbs could ruin the careers of celebrities, at a time when AIDS was not yet diagnosed, Studio 54 captured an uninhibited period of freedom and experimentation in the 1970s.
“Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede” can be seen until August 24, 2014. Curated by Halston’s niece, Lesley Frowick, in collaboration with The Andy Warhol Museum, the show brings together almost 200 items from the collection of The Warhol and other major museums and collections across the United States. Lesley Frowick is currently a free-lance photographer, completing a biography on the life of Halston to be published by Rizzoli in Fall 2014. The exhibition is accompanied by the appropriately lavish volume “Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede,” edited by Lesley Frowick and Geralyn Huxley, and published by Harry N. Abrams. This publication complements the groundbreaking exhibition that documents the connections between the two men against the social backdrop of 1970s New York. Included are essays, interviews, and biographical timelines that cover topics such as Halston’s importance in the canon of American couture, Warhol’s Fashion TV, the similarities in their lives and careers, and the role of celebrity in art and fashion. Warhol’s paintings, ads, and photographs are interspersed with recent photographs of Halston’s creations in a decade by decade format. The interviews with friends and colleagues add realism to the story.