Lauren Bacall had one condition when New York's Fashion Institute of Technology wrote recently to ask if it could turn hundreds of personal garments she donated into an exhibition about her style.
"She said, 'Yes, it's fine, as long as it's high-quality -- Diana Vreeland style,' " recalls Valerie Steele, director of the institute's museum.
Over the years, Bacall hadn't forgotten the fashion editor who plucked her from a Seventh Avenue showroom floor and sent her calling card, via the pages of Harper's Bazaar, to Hollywood when she was just 19.
Next spring, the museum, with help from the institute's graduate students, will present a show focusing on five designers who helped define Bacall's subtle seductiveness and sophisticated mix of classic femininity with raw masculine authority in fashion.
Bacall, who died Aug. 12 at 89, was a fashion darling of a unique sort. A model at 16, later a pal of Yves Saint Laurent and a well-known admirer of designs by Norman Norell, she wore the clothes -- not the other way around.
"She really epitomized this idea of effortlessness. It's like she never was trying too hard, and I think that sometimes is the most difficult thing to achieve," says designer Peter Som. "That gaze, the voice, the hair -- it was just that confidence. That was something that I think men and women alike could relate to."
Among Som's favorite Bacall fashion moments is a casual one captured in a 1946 photo. She's propped on a stool near a fireplace, leaning on a bent knee and wearing a wool trouser and loose turtleneck suit designed by Leah Rhodes. The pleats are sharp and the sleeves billowy. On her feet are low-wedge slides. Her piercing sideward glance and a wave of long blond hair took fashion in a new direction.
"She was the opposite of Marilyn Monroe's overt sexuality, yet she still oozed sensuality out of every pore," Som says. "The clothes are so simple and so chic, and they still feel today so relevant, ... clothes you kind of want to wear."
In fashion, on-screen and off, Bacall was the grown-up, even as a teen, says Som.
Eric Wilson, fashion news director for InStyle magazine, notes her film role as a fashion designer in "Designing Woman" (1957). "There's this dress, what appears to be a pale gray sleeveless dress with a loosely draped halter top, and it turns out to be her wedding dress," he says.
After a hurried wedding, she goes into an airplane bathroom and changes, emerging in a stretchy, navy outfit, with a hat, leather gloves and a mink stole wrapped around her shoulders. "That transformation -- it's amazing. It kind of demonstrates her simple, exquisite glamour," Wilson says.
It's the kind of transformation that led Steele to choose a Norell dress -- one done up entirely in hand-sewn gold sequins with a matching camel-color cashmere coat that's plain on the outside but lined with matching sequins on the inside -- for the exhibit.
"Once you take the coat off, it's va-va-va voom," she says. "But (when) covered up with the coat ... you can wear it on the subway as just a simple little thing."
The exhibit will focus mostly on Bacall's looks during the 1950s and '60s. Clothes by Norell will be shown along with designs Bacall donated from Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent and Ungaro.
Designer Isaac Mizrahi says her intellect is what helped Bacall put her own mark on fashion. He explained it this way in the April 2001 issue of InStyle, looking back on her appearance at the Oscars in 1979: "Wearing a 50-year-old Fortuny dress proved how smart Lauren Bacall was," he wrote. "A smart Jewish girl from the Bronx who knew Norell as well as Loehmann's, she's our reference for what smart looks like. Look up 'smart' in the dictionary -- you'll find her picture."
Style and beauty expert Mary Alice Stephenson says Bacall helped redefine beauty and femininity in fashion. She "made it sexy for all women to wear casual clothes. She would wear them in such a glamorous way," Stephenson says. "She played up her makeup, hair and jewelry, all while wearing pants, button-down shirts, knits and flats."
There were few others who so successfully managed such a sexy, masculine edge while also being capable of full-on glam, Steele says. "Some of what she wore didn't look prim, but it might have on others," Steele continues. "Sometimes it was conservative looking, but she wore it with ... panache. It was a combination of Hollywood, feminine glamour and masculine, androgynous insouciance and power. The only other person I can think of who could do that was (Marlene) Dietrich."
Bacall was never a muse for any single designer. Plenty, though, were touched by her style over the decades: Bill Blass, Perry Ellis, her friend Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren are among them.
Karan, in an email, points to Bacall as someone who "inspired us all, especially those of us in the fashion world." Lauren says in an email that Bacall's fashion legend relied on glamour that is "beautiful, bold and independent."
As Som says of that photo of Bacall at that fireplace in trousers and sweater: "It's kind of a butch pose, you know, but she was just so cool. She was a real dame, an old soul even back then, with an innate sense of how to wear things. ... How she carried that off was magic."