Oscar de la Renta, the celebrity fashion designer who died yesterday at the age of 82, was a star of the Smithsonian's costume collection. His evening dresses and other items have come from socialites, politicians and de la Renta himself. The collection has 10 items by the designer, plus three of his sketches.
Nancy Davis, a curator at the National Museum of American History who oversees the costume collection, says de la Renta stood out from his contemporaries because he was so versatile. "He was really interested in couture, but he was also interested in ready-to-where," Davis says. She adds that he specialized in "tasteful clothes, really extravagant clothes and elegant clothes."
One item at the Smithsonian that stands out is a two-piece red evening dress designed for Lilly Lawrence between 1983 and 1985 in New York. Lawrence, the daughter of an Iranian oil official, is a philanthropist and socialite and known in some circles as Princess Lilly. "She enjoyed his designs a lot. Lilly did wear a lot of de la Renta," says Davis, who has spoken with Lawrence in the past. "This particular piece is actually bold, but really wearable," Davis says.
Also in the collection is a de la Renta ball gown and jacket that he designed in the late 1960s for Francesca Lodge, the wife of an American ambassador to Spain. The American History Museum describes it as a "strapless evening dress in purple, olive and gray floral weave on cream damask with matching long sleeved jacket." Another item, donated by Donald Graham in 2004, was owned by Katharine Graham of Washington Post fame.
De la Renta also personally donated items to the museum in 2003. "He was willing to give us some of his things that he felt strongly about," Davis says. One of those items, an evening dress designed for the House of Balmain, was worn by American socialite Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
"He is the first American called on by a major French couture house to design for it—a true recognition of Oscar de la Renta's talent," Brent D. Glass, then museum director, said in 2003.
The designer was born in the Dominican Republic in 1932. He moved to Spain in his late teens and began sketching fashion designs. "De la Renta became known for his feminine, romantic, and dramatic evening clothes utilizing elaborate fabrics and embroideries," a 2003 museum press release said.
"Many established and rising stars in the Latino world of business, entertainment and fashion admired him for his skill, outlook and of course, clothing," says Steve Velasquez, an associate curator at the American History Museum who specializes in Latino history. "But his fashions and his sense of style really crossed ethnic and geographical lines."
Part of the American History Museum, the costume collection has some 30,000 items dating from the 17th century.
Update 10/21/14: This post has been updated to include a quote from Steve Velasquez of the American History Museum.