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'Gracefully Chic' exhibit is a stylish nod to Philip Hulitar

Model Jean Patchett wears a Hulitar gown in

Model Jean Patchett wears a Hulitar gown in 1952. Credit: Vogue/Francesco Scavullo

“Is that really me?” you ask while admiring the flattering square neckline and satin-sashed waist reflected in the full-length mirror. Light from an elegant chandelier twinkles above as you sink into the plush blue carpet the precise hue of the surrounding wallpaper.

The unexpected moment of glam in a re-created 1950s upscale department-store dressing room is one visitors can experience in “Gracefully Chic: The Fashions of Philip Hulitar,” which opens July 27 at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. The first major retrospective dedicated to the mid-century designer features evening wear, jewelry, historical photographs and fashion sketches — many on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.

“I see no artistic reason why a dress should look like a bag,” Hulitar once quipped. The tailored, textured “after-five” attire he designed for the discriminating post-World War II American woman could be both snatched off-the-rack and custom-fitted at a haute couture salon,

chief curator Joshua Ruff says of Hulitar’s knack for marrying an Old World sensibility with a modern American one. At 59, Hulitar exited the fashion industry and moved his family from their grand Glen Cove home down to Palm Beach, Florida, where he successfully pursued other passions, including interior design and philanthropy.

Besides dressing celebrities including singer Rosemary Clooney and Oscar-winning actresses Joan Fontaine and Patty Duke, Hulitar gained a large national clientele. His bouffant-style ball gowns and form-fitting creations were particularly adored by Manhattan and Long Island society. His favorite model and muse, though, was his wife, Mary Perry Gerstenberg, who grew up near Stony Brook and whose father, Dr. Charles Gerstenberg, was a founder of the museum’s carriage collection.

A long dress printed with a repeated Greek horse motif worn by Mrs. Hulitar counts among the 45 vintage garments on display, as does a yellow, green and white strapless given to the museum in 1998 by a woman who wore the dress as a teenager to a Southampton charity event. “The show has important connections to local history,” notes Ruff.

Though recapturing a specific moment in time, the exhibition also demonstrates Hulitar’s connections to the high-end fashions that followed. “I think people tend to pigeonhole him, but he’s relevant and related to all the classic designers — Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang,” says Ruff. “The show puts his legacy in context.”

WHAT “Gracefully Chic: The Fashions of Philip Hulitar”

WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday, runs July 27-Oct. 20, the Long Island Museum, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook

INFO $10, $7 ages 62 and older, $5 ages 6-17 and free ages 5 and younger; 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org

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