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Saintly Dresses: Rodarte at LACMA

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It's hard for museums to take fashion seriously, but Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte are forging a solid path into museum culture that young designers can only dream of. In its third solo exhibition in the U.S.—and its second in L.A.—Rodarte's spring 2012 couture collection, "Fra Angelico," is gorgeously installed in one of LACMA's Italian Renaissance rooms. Turning the corner on the third floor of the museum's Ahmanson Building, two vivid paintings invite you into a large room, where nine gowns gracefully hang above a gleaming gold stage. The garments are immersed in a beautiful dialogue with the museum's collection, surrounded by Italian panel paintings and terracotta sculptures from the 14th through 16th centuries.

The dresses are installed as they were for MoCA's exhibit earlier this year—hung from the ceiling by invisible wires and mounted on transparent plastic forms that give the garments an ethereal weightlessness. In contrast to MoCA, the garments at LACMA are studiously engaged with the museum's collections, drawing attention to Rodarte's art historical sources and allowing visitors to read both the dresses and the lush radiance of Renaissance art in an entirely new light.

It's always a thrill to see couture in person, and that pleasure is heightened when you juxtapose the sources of inspiration against the Mulleavy sisters' dresses—colorfully pure manifestations of their imaginings wrought in delicate textures, pastel palettes and gilded accessories. The sisters were inspired by a trip to San Marco in Florence, where they likely saw Fra Angelico's fresco masterwork, The Annunciation. In that painting, the angel Gabriel meets the Virgin Mary dressed in a precisely pleated pink robe, feathered wings and a golden halo. LACMA doesn't have any works by Fra Angelico, but art by his contemporaries is equally evocative.

All the garments are arranged in a circle, and the hue of each dress finds its parallel in the paintings they face. Saints, angels, and virgins rendered in fleshy pink tones wear precisely draped blue, orange, and crimson robes. The gallery's sculptures are colored in luminous cream, robin's egg blue, and seafoam green glazes. The artwork mirrors Rodarte's resplendent confections in similar colors and silken fabrics. The centerpiece of the installation is a golden dress, fashioned with a tulip skirted peplum waist and voluminous sleeves, fortuny pleats, feathers and crystals. A 15th century painting by the Master of the Fiesole Epiphany hangs in the background, its massive gilded frame offering a counterpoint to Rodarte's glittering metal headpiece and belts.

At LACMA, the encircling religious imagery positions Rodarte's dresses in the realm of royalty, gods, and saints—provocative, perhaps, but there's no denying that the Mulleavy craftsmanship is exquisite. Though Rodarte has promised the collection to the museum, all ten dresses are not on display. One way to see the entire collection is in the December issue of A Magazine, featuring Elle Fanning and photographed by Bill Owens, who applies his signature snapshots of suburban American life to the young starlet in frothy haute couture. We think that sums up the perfectly paradoxical life of a Rodarte gown: as saintly among Renaissance paintings as it is happy next to Converse sneakers and a pale-pink ice box in the kitchen.

Rodarte: Fra Angelico Collection is on view at LACMA through February 5, 2012.
· LACMA [Official Site]
· A Magazine Curated by Rodarte [Rodarte/Facebook]
· Rodarte at MoCA: States of Matter Review [Racked LA]