The Elegance of Old Hollywood

Eyes starved for glamor are finding a feast at the Denver Art Museum in its exhibition, “Paris to Hollywood: The Fashion and Influence of Veronique and Gregory Peck.”
Old Hollywood

The show of more than 100 couture outfits, sketches, photographs, documents and film clips from the wardrobe of French writer, philanthropist and style icon Veronique Peck reveals not only one woman’s life but also the evolution of global high fashion in the latter half of the 20th century.

Veronique Passani was a journalist working in Paris in 1952 when she met and interviewed American actor Gregory Peck, who had stopped in France on his way to Italy to film Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn. The actor was so smitten with the young writer that when he was again in Paris months later, he called her at her newspaper office and asked to meet. The rest, as they say, is history. They wed in 1955 (after Peck’s divorce from his first wife) and were married until Peck’s death in 2003. The Pecks were a celebrated couple in Hollywood, not just among the movie crowd, but also because they donated money to, and raised millions of dollars for, such causes as American Cancer Society, the Motion Picture and Television Fund, and the Los Angeles Public Library.

Véronique Peck brought with her to California “a Parisian vision, not only on fashion, but on lifestyle,” says Florence Müller, the Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Fashion at the museum. “You have this very educated woman who had read so many books and had knowledge on every kind of subject.”

Married to one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men, Véronique Peck was a frequent hostess and had active roles in various charities. She dressed the part in couture clothing she had made for her by the leading designers of the day, many of them French. She kept notes of her purchases and archived the outfits as well, amassing a collection of more than 300 ensembles over the decades.

“As a former journalist, she was organized about materials and research, and I knew that her careful records of correspondence with the couturiers, along with fabric swatches, sketches and notes, all had a story to tell,’’ said Cecilia Peck Voll, Véronique and Gregory Peck’s daughter, via email. “She had been talking with her friend Laura McLaws Helms, the Thea Porter historian, about her collection and the idea of exhibiting it one day, but sadly my mother passed [in 2012] before that could happen. So it became something I very much wanted to do in her honor.”

Voll got her chance after being introduced to Müller via a family friend, Ramey Caulkins, an interior designer based in Denver. “We were on vacation and Cecilia was telling me the story of her parents, this love story, and about her mother’s sense of fashion and style,” Caulkins recalled. Shortly after, Caulkins, a supporter of the Denver Art Museum, attended a lecture Müller gave and caught the curator afterwards to mention her connection to Voll and Véronique Peck, offering to introduce them.

Voll, a documentary filmmaker, had seen the Christian Dior retrospective in Paris that Müller curated and knew of her work on fashion exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum. “Florence’s expertise was in Yves Saint Laurent and many of the designers that Véronique collected, and she was also interested in Véronique as a woman,” Voll said. “I knew right away that Florence was the perfect fit and it was meant to be.”

The two met at Voll’s California home and began planning the exhibition. The Pecks, Müller said, “belong to the history of Hollywood and I saw that there was the possibility of telling the story of them as well as the connection between Hollywood and Paris, where all the trends were decided.”

Dresses, coats and gowns from 15 designers are featured in the show, including Valentino, Balenciaga, Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin. The exhibition is organized by themes as well as chronologically, tracing such fashion trends as the miniskirt. Véronique Peck introduced the designs of André Courrèges to the U.S. market in the 1960s and she became a fashion influencer. A number of the items in Peck’s wardrobe came straight from the runway, or were modified runway samples, other proof of Peck’s connection to the design houses. Visitors to the exhibition will see such couture pieces as outfits from Yves Saint Laurent’s acclaimed Russian collection of 1976-1977.

Voll realized early on that her mother had a unique relationship with fashion. “I learned from her that fashion wasn’t about what others were wearing; it was dressing in a way that reflected her engaging personality. …What she wore was part of an entire experience that would be inclusive, warm and memorable. She wasn’t a showcase for the dresses; they reflected who she was.”

Going out was a ritual for her parents, Voll said. “My father would always be dressed first, in anticipation of seeing her in her gown. He would be at the bar chilling a bottle of Champagne in a handsome silver bucket, playing Sinatra on the stereo, and gleefully waiting for her to appear. She would be in her boudoir putting on the final touches and last spray of perfume, placing a lipstick in her Buccelati minaudière. When she emerged he would raise his glass, just so delighted by her. She was so much fun, incredibly astute, very engaging on subjects of politics, art, film and culture. She was always the life of the party. And together with their interest in social justice and making a difference in the world, they were unstoppable.”

Véronique Peck also was a friend to a younger generation of Hollywood actresses, including Sharon Stone and Laura Dern. Müller interviewed both women and their stories are included in the catalog that accompanies the exhibit. “Sharon told me, ‘When I came to Hollywood, I was very young and didn’t know the rules of society and social life. Véronique was my mentor in how to behave,’” Müller said, noting Dern shared that “Véronique taught her about things like how to set a beautiful table and décor and how to make guests feel welcome and happy.”

Not only did Voll loan a big selection of pieces from her mother’s wardrobe for the show, she also donated 20 ensembles to the museum. Müller said she selected pieces that would enlarge her department’s fashion collection. The exhibition, said the curator, “pays homage to Véronique Peck’s taste and her vision,” while the donations help realize “my goal to increase diversity and examples of designers” and fashion periods not currently in museum archives.

Touring the exhibit when it opened in March, Cecilia Peck Voll said she was moved by the presentation and seeing the clothes her mother wore, as well as seeing photos and film clips of her parents. Only one thing made Voll sad: “that she couldn’t be here to see it.”

THE DETAILS

“Paris to Hollywood: The Fashion and Influence of Véronique and Gregory Peck”

On view at the Denver Art Museum through July 18

100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway Denver, CO 80202

720-865-5000

denverartmuseum.org

Suzanne S. Brown is the managing editor of Colorado Expression.

Categories: Art & Design