Around this time of the year magazines and online publications dedicate a lot of space to suggestions about what to wear on New Year's Eve. As you may have noticed, quite often they disappointingly offer readers the same ideas that could be summarised with metallics, sequins and fifty shades of red. There are places, though, where it is possible to get very inspiring ideas and dream endlessly about amazing gowns – museums. It is indeed possible to find wonderful gems while searching the online collections of various museums (or by visiting them in person).
Grès experimented in this case with taffeta, creating a long narrow skirt with a bodice draped and gathered at the front that opened up in an enormous bubble of fabric in the back (View this photo).
You prefer a bit of colour in your gown? In the same archive you will find the silk "Ribbon" gown designed by Charles James in 1947.
James considered himself as an artist and sculptor of dress rather than a dressmaker and his skills are clear from the perfect shape he created for this gown. The relationships between form, color and texture are impeccable in this evening gown, with the fabrics in soft tender shades creating a rigorously well-balanced sense of dynamism.
Fashion history fans who loved the '20s should instead go for Paul Poiret's "Robe Sabat". This silk red ensemble from 1921 was named after the historical Middle Eastern kingdom of Sheba. The beadwork belt and fringe add an exotic feel to this piece while the fleur-de-lis puts the gown in a national context.
If you think that it is possible to enter the new year only in a grand style and with something sparkling and costumy, at the Met Museum archives you will also be able to discover Travis Banton's 1934 costume for Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong starring as Tu Tuan in the film Limehouse Blues.
This costume was a sort of mix of different styles: it evoked the traditional Chinese dress, the "cheongsam", and featured a gold dragon motif derived from the Chinese tradition, but its construction followed the high-necked form-fitting Western gowns from the Belle-Epoque period.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art offers instead something along the same costumy lines, but in an '80s style by Bob Mackie. This off-white synthetic crepe ensemble features Mackie's trademark passion for sequins, with graphic motifs of stars and hearts recreated in rhinestones and teal and white plastic and glass beads.
Feeling arty? The same museum stores a 1926 silk evening dress with Constructivist silk appliqué and metallic thread and wool yarn embroidery designed by Natalia Sergeyevna Goncharova for the Parisian House of Myrbor, owned by Madame Marie Cuttoli (from 1930 to 1936, Cuttoli focused on interior decoration and commissioned hand-woven rugs and tapestries based on designs by painters such as Matisse and Picasso).
If you want to opt for something as timeless as this piece, but maybe a bit longer and with a simple construction with a quirky touch, have a look at this rayon damask and silk satin dress and jacket by Elsa Schiaparelli from the Spring 1948 season.
The ensemble reaffirms the barrel outline that Schiap had introduced in August 1947. The bronze-and-black striped satin jacket was cut away at the front, opened around the hips, then curved and turned in at the back (construction-wise this part of the jacket is particularly interesting). The striped fabric was also employed on the bodice to emphasize the contours of the bosom.
The dress's dramatic full skirt, although flat at the front, ties up into a slight bustle at the back: its bronze-and-black rayon damask fabric is woven with a sweeping design of elongated tulips, and the ensemble was accessorized with a striking feather headdress.
A last elegant and understated piece could be this late 1950s silk, satin and faille ensemble by Owen Hyde Clark for Worth London (an offshoot of the original House of Worth, established in Paris in 1856), from the archives of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
This navy evening dress was cut on the bias and featured crafted pleats and draped skirt detailing. The neckline was particularly striking with a V-shaped cross-over detail with fringed fabric detail inserted in one of the pleats. The full skirt also had a cross-over V effect pleating from the hips.
We may not be able to buy these pieces (well, unless you're a wealthy collector and you often visit very special fashion auctions...) and probably only the most skilled among us can try and reinvent some of these designs, yet the most important thing is that we can all admire these pieces in museum collections and that's why we should be grateful to many institutions around the world for making them available to us all and for allowing us to admire them in proper display rooms or in digital format.
Enjoy your window shopping session for a New Year's Eve gown at your nearest museum!
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