A National Treasure: Museo de la Moda

In May 2007, the subject in the style pages was the opening of the Museo de la Moda in Santiago, Chile. Eric Wilson writing in The New York Times spoke for the world’s biggest fashion collectors when he asked, “WHO is Jorge Yarur Bascuñán and what does he want with Madonna’s bra? And Margot Fonteyn’s tutu?”  You see, Jorge Yarur, the museum’s founder, had upset the tight knit world of historical couture. Not only had he frustrated intentions, but had also outbid established collectors, people accustomed to getting what they want. In this business it is all about having the inside track and money to compete, so when this unknown showed up on the scene, it caused quite a stir indeed. 

The online edition of Santiago’s El Mercurio newspaper took a different perspective. Its headline read, “El museo chileno que compite con los europeos.” Translated this is “The Chilean Museum that Competes with the Europeans.” For El Mercurio, the  inauguration of the museum represented a turning point for Chile in the international arena of museums. Rather than presenting “bad infrastructure, insufficient budget, works in poor condition, and deplorable displays,” the Museo de la Moda opened with a world-class inaugural exhibit curated by Lydia Kamitsis, a renowned expert, who until 2003 was with the Museum of Fashion and Textiles in Paris, France. For Chileans, it was all about, “Yes, we can! We can compete with the best of the best, anywhere.” But, more importantly, the museum is a national treasure preserving a glimpse of the fabric of life of a leading Chilean family in the mid-to-late twentieth century, their love affair with fashion, textiles, and design, and then placing it within its larger context in the history of western fashion and design.

The museum, on avenida Vitacura, is just around the corner from where I stay when in Santiago on Bartolomé de las Casas. It sits hidden within a garden of leafy trees on a large corner lot that is protected by a fence. Incorporating the actual house of the Yarur Bascuñán family it preserves several important rooms of the modernist home designed by the architects, Carlos Bolton, Sergio Larrain, and Luis Prieto, and constructed in 1962. 

My visit to the Museo de la Moda was in January 2008, just after the end-of-the-year festivities and welcoming of the new year. It was a hot and humid Saturday afternoon when most Santiaguinos were at the beach, lakes, or mountains keeping cool and enjoying the first days of summer vacation. 

After buying a ticket and going through what seemed a circuitous entry I arrived to the house and the galleries.  Above and to my left, there was a black and white video playing–really, a collage of old family films from the 1950s and 1960s. It starred an elegant dark haired beauty with a sense of assuredness of the kind taught in finishing schools. She was posing and laughing on the beach; climbing over rocks in high heels, wearing short-shorts that at that time in Chile must have been just a bit scandalous. Then, she is on a promenade beside the Mediterranean. On a motor launch, she has tied a scarf tied over her head to keep her hair from blowing in her face. The scarf is flapping like a flag in the wind.

The lady in the video was Raquel Bascuñán Cugnoni, mother of Jorge Yarur Bascuñán, the creative and business force behind the museum. A woman of immediate charm and impeccable taste, she had that kind of charisma we know from famously over-exposed women like Jackie O or Diana, Princess of Wales. This woman was so alive, but also seemingly alone. The aloneness lurked just beneath the surface and tempered her gaiety and nonchalance. I wanted to stay watching the video, to unmask the story behind the woman. I wanted to know about her life and understand her secrets. But to know something more of her, I would need to explore more than the video going round and round at the entrance of the hall leading to the galleries.

Inside and to the left were some of the preserved living spaces of the home: The bar and family room. Minimalist in line and form, everything was exquisitely mid-century modern: The wood, the design of the furniture, the colors and textures of the textiles. Could that be a Roberto Matta hanging on the wall?  Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows was a grove of bamboo trees. I imagined Señora Bacuñán at the bar, dressed for cocktails and pouring a before-dinner drink for her family and guests.

In another wing of the house, across the hall from each other, was her dressing room and bedroom. There was also the bedroom of her husband and father of the museum founder, Juan Yarur Banna. I had more questions than answers. Why separate bedrooms? Was it simply the fashion of the day? Did it signal something in the relationship between husband and wife?  Whatever the reason too private to consider further, it revealed once again a separateness, a loneliness.

In the galleries displaying clothes, I sought out her dresses, suits, and accessories. Of the 8,000 pieces in the museum collection, 500 are hers.  Among them were day dresses, evening wear, and accessories from French and Italian fashion houses.  Many, bought during her eight month honeymoon in Europe in 1958, had fitted darted bodices with slim waists, full and tulip-like skirts, sleeveless and short sleeves. These were unfussy clothes with minimal decoration, a sash or bow being the most ostentatious adornment. Their economy of line foreshadowed the slim, minimalist silhouettes and asymmetrical designs to come later in the sixties. The colors I remember were pinks and oranges. These designs were more meaningful because of the connection to their owner, just as Margot Fonteyn’s tutu or Madonna’s pink bra were more meaningful because you could imagine them performing on stage in the clothes.  This is also why the most exquisite designs of Valentino, that I talk about in another post, are those that you can witness in action on the women who wore them.

As I moved alone from room to room, some were absolutely dark and I was afraid to enter. I waved my hand inside the door to see if the lights would go on, but they didn´t. I hesitated and a guard approached, smiled, and said, “Pasa.”  “Enter.” I did and after taking three steps, the lights went on and there were more creations from times past, stretching from the 1930s back to the 17th century. Being so close it was easy to see the changes in fabrics along the way from silk and muslin to rayon and other synthetics in the twentieth century. I could imagine, depending on the century, ladies at tea or going to the movies, at a formal dinner or cocktails. But it was hard to imagine them at sports (except for the collection of tennis dresses), in the garden, caring for children, or in the office in most of these clothes.  The intimacy of lives lived in these rooms with the historical significance of the clothes so carefully preserved delivered an immense pleasure of place, people, and fashion. The museum is a treasure.

All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum










One response to “A National Treasure: Museo de la Moda

  1. I really liked this piece of writing Mary. It felt like I was there with you,

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