A week ago today, the fashion world lost designer Arnold Scaasi (1930-2015), whose gowns have been seen on the red carpet and on First Ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Laura Bush. Scaasi is best known for his outrageously theatrical looks for sixties starlets like Natalie Wood, Mary Tyler Moore, and Barbra Streisand and for his colorful, playful 1980s evening gowns, the embodiment of Reagan-era feminine excess. As he once boasted, "Scaasi creations are the champagne and caviar of the fashion world."1
Born Arnold Isaacs in Montreal, Scaasi trained at the prestigious Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and honed his haute couture technique during an apprenticeship with the house of Paquin. In the early 1950s, he moved to New York to work with the legendary Charles James, whose influence could be seen in Scaasi's command of structure and scale. When he launched his own label, Isaacs reversed the letters of his last name to form the Italianate moniker "Scaasi." Like James, Scaasi saw himself as an American couturier, offering a custom-made alternative to Parisian couture and Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear.
Bucking couture tradition, Scaasi often opened his runway shows with evening wear, to make a dramatic impact.2 This early cocktail dress of brown cotton velvet is embellished with the kind of elaborate, three-dimensional ribbonwork usually seen only in haute couture. The knotted orange cotton velvet ribbons are tacked down with orange beads and rectangular gold sequins; the ends are knotted and intertwined for a fringed effect. Between the fluttering ribbons and the reflective sequins, the dress would have been eye-catching even after dark.
1Quoted in Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf, ed., Contemporary Fashion, 2nd Edition (New York: St. James Press, 2002) 598.
2Pamela A. Parmal, Scaasi: American Couturier (Boston: MFA Publications, 2010) 62.