Grand black tie evenings often bring out the very best dressed in San Francisco. The SF Ballet’s Opening Gala offered the occasion for many women to search for a dramatic new gown, or in the case of Ballet Trustee Suzy Kellems Dominik, a hidden treasure of a gown that was new sixty-five years ago. Visiting her knowledgeable friend Rita Watnick at the legendary Lily et Cie in Beverly Hills, ancillary closet to countless movie stars, fashion designers, and vintage connoisseurs, she discovered an original 1951 silk tulle confection designed by Marcel Rochas still in its protective tissue. Remarkably, the strapless dress was in excellent condition and was a near-perfect fit for the svelte Dominik. Perfect fit is unusual to find in vintage haute couture, as the dress was constructed entirely to the measurements of its original owner at a time when women were smaller, with less athletic proportions. Watnick is fanatical about perfectly altering the dress to fit the new owner to the same haute couture standard. Fortunately, she had a willing collaborator in Dominik, who immediately recognized this dress should be worn to the ballet.
The gown is a marvel of color and technique. It plays with gradient and contrasting tones, with a multi-layered skirt of deep marigold and canary yellow and pearl and dove gray delicately fanning out from a structured strapless bodice of tulle-covered silk faille. A spray of pale yellow silk roses twines from the waist down one hip, creating the impression of an impossibly small waist atop the romantic full skirt that reveals a peek of ankle in front, and drops behind to a dramatic short train. Watnick says the piece is a masterpiece of design and construction that is unrivalled by any haute couture produced today. “Look at the tiny fine lines of seaming as the color changes at the bust, waist, and hip – they are brilliantly drawing the eye to emphasize the hourglass figure.” She was particularly impressed with the lightness of the gown, which “weighs not even twenty pounds despite containing hundreds of yards of tulle.” Watnick ‘s research turned up an original description and photo of the dress in a 1951 edition of L’Officiel, a Parisian fashion magazine. “We think the model in the picture may be a very young Helene Rochas, the designer’s wife, who was considered to be one of the two most beautiful women in Paris, the other being Jacques Fath’s wife Genevieve. The dramatic shape of the gown reflects the predominant influence of Fath, whose work also informed Dior’s New Look. ” Watnick’s collection of, and expertise about, midcentury vintage is unrivalled, so her appreciation for this particular gown speaks volumes. And how does Dominik feel about actually wearing such a rarity? “It is a dream, a privilege,” she concurs. “A gown this incredible deserves to be treasured and appreciated all over again. It’s like a love letter from a magical time and place!”
Photos courtesy of Lily et Cie