Fashioning San Francisco - A Century of Style

By Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco By Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco | February 13, 2024 | Style & Beauty, Sponsored Post,


Home to one of the country's significant collections of women's fashion from the twentieth century through to today, thanks to the generosity of Bay Area women, the de Young now presents more than 100 ensembles and accessories from its storied collection in a journey through the high fashion history of the city by the Bay.

Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style, a new exhibition at the de Young museum, showcases a century of high fashion history through the lens of the Museums’ costume collection. The exhibition begins in the early 20th century, when San Francisco is regaining its position and redefining itself in the wake of the devastating earthquake and fire in 1906. As the process of rebuilding unfolded, the city aimed to boost an image of resiliency. These efforts included planning the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair where Parisian couture gowns were prominently displayed.


Department stores began their move back to the downtown area starting in 1908, and French-made clothing continued to command San Francisco’s fashion landscape in the ensuing decades. Local retailers sold exclusive wares as well as American adaptations of French haute couture. The Museums’ collection of “little black dresses” and ball gowns attest to the vibrant fashion sector, particularly in the mid-twentieth century. At this time, luxury department stores, like I. Magnin & Company supplied fine gowns for charitable galas and other philanthropic events.


Philanthropy emerged as one of many vital leadership roles fulfilled by twentieth-century Bay Area women, along with civic engagement and business entrepreneurship. As women entered the workforce in larger numbers, suiting became a practical part of their wardrobes, useful for conveying power. As seen in the exhibition, modern women’s suits were often designed as feminized versions of the traditional men’s suit, patterned textiles and decorative accents. Shoes also provide a powerful way for women to make statements about their own bodies and control how they are perceived, due to their functionality and intimate relationship with comfort and mobility.


San Franciscans have a long-standing history of embracing radical clothing styles, with local fashion mavericks supporting boundary-pushing designers in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Many featured designs play with expansive and amorphous forms as a way to blur the boundary between dress and body. The exhibition also addresses the centuries-long practice of cultural appropriation and commodification in fashion. Multivalent interpretations of cultural appropriation and commodification are addressed in the show, as legacies of subjugation are confronted and as globalization fosters a more interdependent and connected world.

By featuring exceptional designs from this dynamic century, Fashioning San Francisco highlights how fashion is woven into our social and cultural landscape while also celebrating the distinctive qualities of individual style.

Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style is on view at the de Young museum through August 11, 2024. Tickets are available at


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