By Melissa Arnold
Before Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors became icons in the fashion world and a fixture of department stores everywhere, there was designer Philip Hulitar.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Hulitar was designing distinctively tailored and elegantly decorated cocktail dresses that were worn by the likes of Jane Fonda, Rosemary Clooney and Patty Duke. In 1949, a journalist wrote of him, “The star of a gifted designer has risen recently on the fashion horizon.”
Hulitar developed a passionate following on Long Island, where he lived and gave generously in support of his local community. So it was only fitting to host the first exhibit dedicated exclusively to his work and legacy at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. Titled Gracefully Chic: The Fashions of Philip Hulitar, the show opens in the museum’s Art Museum on the hill on July 27 and runs through Oct. 20.
Curated by LIM’s Deputy Director and Director of Collections & Interpretation Chief Joshua Ruff, the exhibit has been years in the making, beginning with a single dress. The yellow silk chiffon gown with a green sash and floral accents was purchased at Henri Bendel in New York circa 1955 and was worn by Carolyn Fell of Nissequogue during her teen years. It was donated to the Long Island Museum in 1998.
Ruff has included the dress in a few other exhibits over the years and always wanted to know more about the man who designed it.
“This exhibit is unique in its dedication to a single designer. He’s never truly gotten his due in a museum project before, especially on this scale,” he said. “There are a lot of museums that have one or two Hulitar pieces in their collections, but to have the opportunity to gather so many pieces in one room is really special.”
Born in 1905 to a Hungarian diplomat and an Italian noble, Hulitar immigrated to the United States during the Great Depression. For 18 years, he worked as chief designer for the Bergdorf Goodman department store before launching his own brand in 1949.
“Philip Hulitar’s work really evokes mid-20th century America. He was tremendously successful during that specific time in history,” Ruff said. “All major cities carried his label, from large department stores to small boutiques. In postwar society, parties and social events were hugely popular, so having several elegant dresses was a priority. Hulitar’s pieces were accessible to people in middle and upper middle class who needed fine evening wear at prices they could afford.”
Hulitar gained a reputation for his creative use of different materials, complex and elegant textures, and mixing synthetics with traditional fabrics like silk and satin. While he liked to employ a variety of cuts and silhouettes, Ruff said that Hulitar was very conscious of how a particular look would fit each person.
“At his core, Hulitar was about making the feminine form even more beautiful,” Ruff said.
Gracefully Chic will include original drawings from Hulitar, along with apparel and dresses borrowed from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and a variety of other public and private sources.
In all, the exhibit will display 45 garments and more than 100 objects and images.
The Long Island Museum also benefits directly from the generosity of the Hulitar family. In 2016, the museum received a large monetary donation from the Hulitar Family Foundation, and the museum has since named its textile collection after them. The Mary and Philip Hulitar Textile Collection houses more than 10,000 objects, from a 1790s wedding dress to a pair of Jordache jeans.
Visitors to the exhibit will also have the unique opportunity to visit the “interactive dressing room,” an area designed to resemble an early 1960s department store. There, they can try on a Hulitar replica in various sizes. Velcro panels make it easy for the dress to fit over regular clothes, and visitors are encouraged to take pictures and show off their style.
Those looking to explore fashion at a deeper level will want to join the Long Island Museum on Sept. 26, when they host Behind the Runway. This special dinner will celebrate the 80th anniversary of the museum and will feature guest speaker Madelyn Shaw, textile curator at the Smithsonian American History Museum. Shaw will speak on the development of American fashion in Hulitar’s era.
“I think people love to see fashion exhibitions, especially with such an interest in retro fashion today,” Ruff said. “It’s an exciting opportunity for people out here on Long Island to come and see these pieces in their backyard, without having to go to New York City.”
Gracefully Chic will be on view at the Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook from July 27 through Aug. 25. Regular museum hours are Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for students 6 to 17 and college students with ID. Children under 6 are admitted for free. For further information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.