A conversation with Betsy Bloomingdale

Betsy Bloomingdale in her garden in 1973, courtesy of W Magazine.

Kevin & Christina: What are your earliest memories of fashion?

Betsy: My mother always said that whenever they entertained, I always wanted to pass around the appetisers so I could put on my fancy party dress and be helpful. So I loved doing that – I loved getting dressed up. I think it’s always been something for me from the time I was a baby. And they had fun getting things for me, because I was the only child.

Kevin & Christina: How did you become interested in haute couture?

Betsy: There was a lovely lady, Ginette Spanier – I love that name, and she was the directrice of Balmain. She met my husband, and she said, ‘Your wife must be dressed by Balmain. You can’t have her just wearing anything, she has to have beautiful clothes in Paris,’ and so on and so forth. So I said, ‘Alright’ and he said, ‘Alright’ and they sent the croquis and I picked out one or two dresses and I just loved them. And so from then on I was interested in Paris couture.

Kevin & Christina: What was it like to go to the couture shows?

Betsy: It used to be so much fun. Now maybe it’s fun again, I don’t know, because I haven’t done it for about ten years. Christian Dior looks today on the avenue Montaigne exactly as it looked when I started there which was some years ago, but the interior is completely different. The whole way everything was done was so different in those days. We would have a lot of fun with friends. We’d have lunch and then we’d go to the couture shows at three o’clock. ‘Have you seen Balmain?’ ‘Have you seen Chanel?’ and this, that, and the other. And all the girls would talk. It was a whole different era. When you would go into the entrance you were seated. And then later on, your name might be on the chair as [the fashion shows] got bigger but in the beginning you sat in a little chair where they told you to sit. There might be background music, and there was somebody saying it was number so and so, number such and such, and you wrote it down. It was very quiet, very low key. And the same thing at Givenchy. But this was the sort of old-fashioned way. Oh, Givenchy was around the corner from the Plaza Athénée. I loved that hotel because it was all very convenient. And Saint Laurent was eventually up the street.

Kevin & Christina: Who was your favourite couture designer?

Betsy: Marc Bohan at Dior. Well, I think he was my favourite designer aside from the fact that my husband said, ‘You’re buying at Dior because Jacques Roüet [Managing Director at Dior] understands credit!’ Everything that Marc did was so… for me. It fit beautifully, it was pretty. To work with Marc was really very special. He was a wonderful man but he retired. He loved his horses and he went to the country. I was very fond of him.

Kevin & Christina: You gave one Bohan for Dior gown to Cecil Beaton for ‘Fashion: an Anthology’, an exhibition at Victoria & Albert Museum in 1971. Would you tell us about that?

Betsy: Marc made the most beautiful dress I bought for myself. I adored this dress and Cecil Beaton, who was a great friend and was here, spent a lot of time in my garden, painting in my garden. He loved to get away, he didn’t like Hollywood much and he was making My Fair Lady. So he would come over quietly… he was staying at the Bel Air Hotel and in those days I had a butler. The butler would love to go over and pick him up because he wanted to see all the beautiful clothes that he had, all his suits and things. And then he would come and sit in the garden and paint. So when he [later] asked me for something to go to the V&A, that he was having an exhibit, I couldn’t possibly turn him down. And he was doing my portrait. I gave one of my favourite dresses and I would love to get it back!

Kevin & Christina: You purchased from both Marc Bohan and Gianfranco Ferré for Christian Dior. How do you feel about the present designer, John Galliano?

Betsy: I met him when he was at Givenchy, before he went to Dior, and oh my! When I met him he was there with the clothes and everything, and I said, ‘Oh this is wonderful,’ and I looked down and he was barefoot with the brightest red toenails and one was purple and one was red… and I thought ‘Oh my God, this is the designer of this?’ But anyway he was, and he’s been very successful at Dior. And he is a great designer, but I think the things that he puts on the runway are really runway things. Because today those fashion shows are really stage shows and they’re really wonderful and fabulous. They’re not about what you’re going to wear really. And so he had all these incredible things that came out on the runways but that’s not what you came in to buy, to get and have fitted. It’s not like when I first started buying.

Christian Dior Evening Gown Label, Marc Bohan for Dior spring/ summer 1983. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale to the FIDM Library Special Collections.

Kevin & Christina: In addition to Dior, You have given us couture pieces from Yves Saint Laurent and Courrèges, among others. What are your memories of these designers and houses?

Betsy: Yves Saint Laurent. I met him and did have lunch with him, but I never really knew him. He was so talented but he was more apart. He was a quiet man, you know? He had a health problem. But he was a genius – absolutely so. Now Courrèges, oh but I do remember Courrèges! I arrived at the Plaza Athénée Hotel and a woman walked around the door. She had on [gasps] the best looking thing I’d ever seen. And I stood in the lobby where I was just checking in and she had this kind of wonderful thing on that looked like, I don’t know, a ‘V’ shape. And I just had to find out and she said, ‘Oh it’s Courrèges.’ And I had never seen Courrèges. And I knew it was around the corner someplace… and I couldn’t wait to get there the next day. And a lovely lady called Dreda Mele, she’s still a very close friend of mine in Paris, was the directrice there. And she said, ‘Betsy – you must have this and that and the other thing.’ So that’s what we did and I loved Courrèges at the time. Then she went on to Givenchy and was directrice there. She’s out of the fashion business now but she still lives in Paris. And so these [clothes] have cultivated some very good friends.

Kevin & Christina: Please describe the process of purchasing a garment.

Betsy: There was a vendeuse you were assigned in those early days, and when you sat at the house itself on those little folding chairs, she would come up afterwards and say, ‘What can I show you? Would you like to try something?’ And if you didn’t like it… ‘Oh I can’t, I have to go,’ or whatever. And if you did [like it] you would say, ‘Oh well, can I see number bum bum bum?’ or whatever it was. And then you would go and sit down and wait till they had a dressing room that you would go into and choose the dress you wanted. And you were assigned a fitter… I can remember Dior very carefully. He had a hallway with three compartments and a curtain that pulled across. And you would go in… ‘Oh maybe I’ll be there at two o’clock’, or ‘four o’clock’. And some of the rooms would be taken. But you would be trying something on and you’d see something going past and you would think, [gasps], ‘Can I try that one?’ And it was wonderful.

Kevin & Christina: How much did your haute couture garments cost?

Betsy: Whatever price they gave you, particularly if they wanted you to wear their clothes, the price was always right. And if they didn’t care you might get another price. But it was never the kind of thing you bargained with. In my case I would never do that, but it could happen. Some of the clothes were very dear. I never chose the ones that were all beaded because that was very expensive.

Kevin & Christina: How did you travel with your haute couture? Did you have someone pack your bags? Were they difficult to travel with?

Betsy: They were difficult to travel with… I would usually put a [couture] dress in a big shopping bag. And hand-carry it. And then try to keep it being shoved into someplace else. I put it right beside me on the plane.

Kevin & Christina: So your most important couture you would keep and carry-on and then you would pack the rest yourself in standard luggage?

Betsy: Right. Check-in luggage. [Couture] would go in a separate paper bag.

Kevin & Christina: While you purchased couture you also wore and continue to wear ready-to-wear. Who were some of your favourite designers?

Betsy: Adolfo. How did I know Adolfo? He’s just a sweet, darling man. Still is. He had the most lovely store. It was on 57th Street [in New York City]… everything he had was like, you know, candy. I was pointing ‘that, that, that!’ I was very sorry when he retired. They’ve all retired on me! That’s the thing… And James Galanos. Galanos always had the most beautiful clothes and he, to me, was like French clothes. You could turn his clothes inside out and they’re beautiful on the inside, beautiful on the outside. Amelia Gray I think was the first person to have Jimmy… and that’s where I met him for the first time. And she had a shop in Beverly Hills.

Kevin & Christina: You have attended so many amazing parties. Tell us about one of your favourites and what you wore.

Betsy: The Bal Oriental, one of the last great balls in Paris… late 1960s or 1970. It was a perfectly fabulous ball and given by the Baron de Redé. Everything was perfection… I needed something to wear. So I had this wonderful thing of Jimmy Galanos’ and I went to Halston who did my headdress for me, because he was a hatter to begin with. Halston used to be at Bergdorf Goodman at the time. I knew him and I went there and I said, ‘I’m going to this ball and wearing Jimmy Galanos’ and he was delighted to do a turban that matched the Galanos outfit that I had.

[Note: the Galanos ensemble Mrs. Bloomingdale wore consisted of a sheer silver lace brassiere and matching lace jacket with metallic brocade trousers.]

Kevin & Christina: What was it like at the party?

Betsy: You walked into this fabulous place on the Isle St. Louis, this incredible house, incredible chateau, whatever it was. And there were live elephants in the courtyard and… parasols and all! And all the way up the staircase were men, nude from up here [demonstrates from her waist to neck] wearing big pantaloons and all greased up and they stood on the doorway as you went up to the stairs and your name was called out. Then you went into this fabulous room and it was… well, everybody looked so sensational. And I’d never seen anything quite like that and everybody was dressed to the nines. I’ve really never seen anything like it. And I was very happy in my Galanos and my Halston.

Betsy Bloomingdale and Ted Gaber at a party at the Jockey Club after Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration in 1981.

Kevin & Christina: Have you ever had a wardrobe malfunction?

Betsy: We went out into the country and it was one of those fabulous old houses. And then the time was come for everybody to leave and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m not going to make that two hour bus ride to London… where’s the ladies room?’ And the ladies room they told me was up in the attic. And I went up there and I had to get out of this dress… that Marc [Bohan] had put together for me. I had to get out of the dress and when I came down they said, ’Where were you, where were you? There’s one seat left for you, come on, come on!’ Well, I was up in that room, way up in the room, in this big castle, in the ladies room [laughs]. I was holding the bus up. But to get out of this dress… there was a whole inside, there would be zippers, I mean, how I ever got dressed I don’t know… the zipper would go up and there would be hooks, hooks, hooks, and the zipper would go up. And then you would get into the other part that might be attached to the dress and you would get the dress up. Then, there’d be another zipper for that and there’d be more little hooks that went over it. In those days, I suppose, not me but other ladies probably had ladies’ maids to help them get dressed. I had to get out of the whole dress and put it back on. Oh it was… I never forgot that. It was terrible!

Kevin & Christina: Have you ever regretted purchasing something?

Betsy: I certainly learned from this. I was invited to the sixtieth birthday of Johnny Spencer, the Earl of Spencer, who was the father of Princess Diana. And it was his sixtieth birthday and I went and I wore this wonderful off-white dress from Dior. And a coat, oh yes, a coat because it was March and it would have been cold… a long coat, beautiful coat. But I went in and in the reception they took the coat off and hung it up and I never saw the coat again – until I left and put the coat on and went back home… and so I realised [gasps] I spent all that money on that coat, and then I would never wear it in California, maybe in New York, but here I bought it for Johnny’s birthday party and they hung it in the closet! So that taught me I didn’t have to spend a lot of money on coats.

Kevin & Christina: You no longer purchase haute couture. When did you stop and why?

Betsy: Probably the Nineties, somewhere in there… I wasn’t mad about it and you know the prices went up, so I just never bought in the couture after that. Because then I found Valentino who did beautiful couture clothes. But for me Valentino, which is what I have on now, he was absolutely sensational. His ready-to-wear was beautifully made, the fabrics were wonderful, and you felt good in what you wore, you know? And he retired last year and I said, ‘I’ll never go out again!’ And I sent him a fax or a letter saying, ‘I’m never going out again if you’re really going to retire.’ He really was so wonderful.

Kevin & Christina: It sounds like you have transitioned perfectly with the change of haute couture.

Betsy: Well, yes. And it’s a different day. You’ve got to go with the flow and so it’s very different. [Couture] still exists but it exists for a different world and a different time. I do like my time better.

Christian Dior by Marc Bohan autumn/winter 1982. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale to the FIDM Library Special Collections.

Kevin & Christina: Since you wear more ready-to-wear than couture these days, have you ever experienced being dressed in the same outfit as another
woman at a party?

Betsy: Ahh, about two years ago I had a new Chanel jacket and I went to the Tuttle’s in London. And they had a reception and I walked in and somebody said, ‘Oh! Oh! Betsy, I’ve got that jacket.’ Oh, you have… mmm that’s nice. And then someone else had the jacket on and two other ladies came up and said they both had the same jacket!

Kevin & Christina: You have given the museum the majority of your couture and high-end ready-to-wear, but we still see some pieces from the 1980s and 1990s in your closet. Why are you keeping them?

Betsy: I like to keep that little group that I can pull out when I want something to be over the top. You know you might have a special occasion that comes up, New Year’s Eve…or some marvellous party…and you want a special dress so I always keep those aside. And I’m the same size, luckily, so that I can wear them again… I have something that I’m going to wear for my granddaughter’s wedding which is a destination wedding in Cabo St. Lucas. And it’s a beautiful caftan of Adolfo’s. And it must be twenty-some years old at least. And I will wear it over some white linen pants and a top. Looks divine… you keep certain things in your closet that have a little future in them, so you can use them. Mrs. Bloomingdale goes to her closet and pulls out a Marc Bohan for Dior blue silk quilted jacket over a navy blue charmeuse evening gown.

Kevin & Christina: Tell us about this ensemble – it’s extraordinary. Is it very special to you?

Betsy: Yes it is. This is Dior 1980 for New Year’s Eve, and [reading from its hanging tag] it went in 1981 to the Reagan Inauguration. I wore it in 1983 in New York City, and 1989 I was doing something in Fort Worth, Texas – I can’t tell you what exactly but that’s where it was worn. I may even bring it out this year. You see, this coat could be worn over a short black skirt, with different things. So, having this beautiful coat is fabulous.

Kevin & Christina: You’re able to tell us exactly where you wore your garments because of the hand-written labels you loop over each hanger. Tell us about them.

Betsy: I have a tag where I list where I’ve worn it and the on the other side it says, ‘with black shoes’, or, ‘black socks’, whatever, you know. So that you can get dressed in a hurry and you don’t have to fiddle around. Or like today, this skirt, which I love, I have a little tag on [the hanger] that tells me I wore the blouse with some pearls. So you don’t have to think about it unless you have time to think about it! I’m a list keeper. I keep lists of everything. Like I just came back from New York and it was a very quick trip this time. And so I can show you a piece of paper that says what I took. And so then I can go back and look at it and say, ‘oh gee no’, or, ’oh yes I took that and it didn’t work,’ you know, and make little notes on things. I’m a prolific note taker.

[Kevin and Christina pull out a red silk gazar dress with a large bow by Bohan for Dior from Mrs. Bloomingdale’s closet.]

Marc Bohan for Christian Dior spring/summer 1985. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale to the FIDM Museum Special Collections.
Betsey Bloomingdale, c. 1985.

Kevin & Christina: Tell us about this dress – it’s so dramatic!

Betsy: Well this is ’85. A state dinner in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and what else does the tag say? ‘Zip a little way, snap bow, then finish zipping and hook.’ So you have to have directions. Difficult to get in and out! But this was a divine dress. I had such a good time. I remember that.

[Kevin and Christina pull out a Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel gown with cockerel feather ornamentation from Mrs. Bloomingdale’s closet.]

Kevin & Christina: This is spectacular. Can you tell us, when did you acquire this or when have you worn it?

Betsy: I’ve worn it but I don’t…I don’t have a tag on it that tells me where I’ve worn it. I can look it up and tell you… oh wait a minute, here’s a tag. I got this Chanel in 1985. I wore it in Dallas Texas and in 2003 at Robert Day’s birthday…

Kevin & Christina: So you have worn this dress…

Betsy: Four times.

Kevin & Christina: But over a twenty-year period…

Betsy: And I can wear it again.

Kevin & Christina: Too many people think, ‘Oh, I have to dress for a season. Then I have to go and get the newest trend.’… but that’s not how you dress.

Betsy: No.

Kevin & Christina: So couture clothes… were not a season?

Betsy: No. They are a lifetime. A lifetime. Absolutely. And I can show you a lifetime right here.

Kevin & Christina: Tell us a bit about your personal style. Are you extravagant? Conservative?

Betsy: I can be both.

Kevin & Christina: If it’s a grand ball, do you…

Betsy: No, there’s not that much anymore, for my life anyway… I mean, you might have some big party, wedding party or things like that. But I have this wonderful closet I go to…

Kevin & Christina: How do you feel about the fact that we have over 125 of your garments in our Museum?

Betsy: I had no idea I was collecting anything that was so important. I never thought it would be important. But my husband had suggested this, you know, giving my things to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum. He said, ‘Look, you have all these beautiful clothes that you bought in Paris and nobody seems to even understand couture and I think you should give your collection away.’ And I thought well that’s kind of a nice idea so, indeed, I did. And they had an exhibit [to celebrate her first donation in 1977]. I remember coming to the exhibit and seeing my favourite dress.

Kevin & Christina: This is that dress, isn’t it? [showing her a photo]

Betsy: ‘Oh that dress!’ You still have it then, it’s something I adored. Yes, it was a linen dress with big flower prints and then loose fluffy flowers at the bottom. I’ve worn these things and I’ve had such a good time in them. It’s such fun to see them on your mannequins.

Kevin & Christina: Do you have any parting thoughts about the era in which you bought your couture?

Betsy: It was a special world in a special time. I haven’t seen a collection in a long time in France because now you sit down at your computer and it’s right there, that’s what they did yesterday. The world is so different today. But in my day I think it was so beautiful. In those days if you could have these beautiful clothes made it was a wonderful thing. And I was very lucky.


This article was originally published in Vestoj On Material Memories.

Betsy Bloomingdale interviewed by Kevin Jones, Curator and Christina Johnson, Collections Manager, FIDM Museum, Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Los Angeles.