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The Night Streisand Opened the Doors

William Norwich on BG's Big Broadcast of 1965

After the fall of 2001, the winter of 2002 was a mournful time in Manhattan. Looking for diverting stories to nourish her readers, Amy M. Spindler, pioneering style editor of the New York Times Magazine, asked her editors and contributors to write about what they thought were the best fashion moments ever.

I didn’t hesitate. I believed it ten years ago and — yes, I’ve since met Lady Gaga and, yes, I’ve seen Daphne Guinness’s new clothes — I believe it even more now. Picture it, in black  and white: April 28, 1965, 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Television is still a teenager. There are only three national networks and a few local stations on the air. Tonight the nation, by the millions, is tuning into CBS to watch the one-hour musical special My Name Is Barbra, and America will never be the same. Move over Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, even Jackie Kennedy—there’s a New Look in town, and her name is Barbra Streisand.

See a clip from My Name is Barbra

She is just twenty-three, a star of Broadway, and she’s—whisper, whisper, “ethnic” looking, which is a euphemism for Jewish, a bohemian sort who thrift-shopped before we called it vintage, and she is pushing the Old Guard fashion world into a global youth quake. “I don’t like ‘the total look’ any more,” she declares in an interview. “A few beads are more elegant than a beaded ball gown. I like sable cuffs better than a whole coat.” In an era when Mad Men–type ladylike fashion  homogeneity still prevailed, Streisand’s styling heresy is the big idea whose time has come.

New Yorkers know her from her Broadway roles in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and in Funny Girl. Most Americans have only read about her. Tonight, she’s in their living rooms. Her voice, as Quincy Jones has said, is like “a Stradivarius.” She’s as glamorous as she is talented. And the show itself isn’t like any television special anyone has seen before: There isn’t a supporting cast of several guest stars, it’s just Streisand, in a studio with an orchestra and live audience, and a fantasy romp at Bergdorf Goodman. She’s wearing Bill Blass, three chiffon looks he designed based on her sketches. “That’s what I like about Bill. He’s not afraid to like my sketches . . . I sketch and he sketches and we sit on the floor and we talk,” Streisand tells a reporter.

In other words, this isn’t the Ed Sullivan Show. Especially that remarkable, nine minute-long medley of “tongue-in-cheek” depression-era songs Streisand wanted to film outside the studio . . . at Bergdorf Goodman. As much as this rattled the network suits—union expenses, insurance, etc.— Barbra got her way. The historic segment was filmed at the Fifth Avenue department store (now the women’s store) on Sunday, March 21, Streisand’s day off from Funny Girl at the Winter  Garden Theatre. A 10-foot-high scaffold was erected over the handbag counter, but the segment was a nightmare to light because of all the mirrors. Every step Streisand took had to be carefully choreographed. Filming lasted into the wee hours of Monday morning.

“Cables drawn across the serene gray carpeting of the Delman shoe salon, halfdevoured delicatessen sandwiches and coffee cake crumbs dotting the stationery display, the fragrance of kosher pickles wafting over the louvered screen that barred the archway of the Van Cleef and Arpels Boutique, and a cluster of men and women watching a television monitor set in the men’s necktie department signified that Bergdorf Goodman was not taking its customary Sabbath slumber,” wrote Marilyn Bender in the Times.

“Surely, Bergdorf’s hasn’t lost its buttons,” wondered another scribbler.

Bergdorf’s hadn’t. After much debate, the store took a calculated risk to attract younger customers, and it paid off spectacularly. The debate mainly focused on whether the Old Guard customers would tolerate the spirit of “throwaway chic” that the segment celebrated.

Streisand arrives in a horse-drawn carriage, wearing costumes and furs created by the store’s designer Emeric Partos. There are white mink knickers, and there is a floor-length Somali leopard trench coat worn as loosely as a bathrobe, not to mention a royal blue and gold paisley velvet jumpsuit and matching coat lined with wild Canadian mink that Streisand at one point tosses on the floor and does a few flamenco steps on. Halston, Bergdorf’s milliner at the time, made her hats.

“Partos said he was making me a riding habit. I said fantastic,” Streisand remarked at one of her fittings. “I think a big high hat is the greatest look for a woman, but it has to have something soft trailing off,” she added, extolling the virtues of a white straw top hat that Halston had designed with lots of veiling.

The night My Name Is Barbraaired, Andrew and Nena Goodman, Bergdorf’s owners, gave a dinner party for Streisand in their sprawling twenty-two-room apartment atop the store. Mrs. Goodman wore a full-length white Patou gown. Her dinner tables were draped in paisley fabric—Streisand loved paisley and had decorated the walls of her dressing room at the Winter Garden with it, bedazzling designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Emilio Pucci when they visited her after performances of Funny Girl.

Remembering the evening, Bill Blass told me that the Goodmans had installed television sets in their living room and in bedrooms throughout the apartment, as well as in Mr. Goodman’s dressing room, so their guests could watch the show when it aired. They waited to serve dinner until Streisand arrived after her performance, around midnight.

Blass was there with his great pal Louise Grunwald, who was wearing a pink dress he’d made for her. He remembered that when Streisand arrived at the party, she was polite but preoccupied—supposedly she’d had a fight with her husband Elliott Gould—and after making her proper hellos, she waited in one of the bedrooms for her newspaper reviews, all raves. Maybe she was shy about meeting the Goodmans? When interviewers asked how she felt about becoming so successful overnight, she’d sometimes answer, “I’ll be a success when I’m famous enough to get waited on at Bergdorf Goodman.” When she was fourteen, she had apparently ventured into Bergdorf’s wearing a secondhand trench coat and felt exceedingly unnoticed.

Although Streisand credited Partos and Halston for the Bergdorf’s segment, and Blass for everything else, the latter designer wouldn’t take any credit for the fashion or for the social revolution the star launched that night. The Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, he said, deserved the credit for “recognizing and promoting Barbra as a style icon.”

Mrs. Vreeland championed Streisand from the beginning. Fanny Brice, the actress Streisand channeled brilliantly in Funny Girl, had never tried to hide the fact that she was Jewish. (Brice’s daughter, Fran Stark, wife of the producer Ray Stark, is said to have handpicked Streisand to play her mother on stage.) Nonetheless, to conform to the beauty standard of her day, made even more intense by the pressures of staying forever young in the entertainment business, Brice had a nose job, in 1923. “Ethnicity was definitely not fashionable in the 1920s,” her biographer wrote.

But in 1965, thanks to Streisand, and thanks to Mrs. Vreeland, ethnicity was more than “a little bit of all right,” as the legendary editor liked to say.

“She comes on exactly right—strong, slangy, a bit wistful, the familiar Brooklyn dipthongs careening through the warm, big voice like an explosion of firecrackers on the Gowanus Canal,” Vogue exclaimed. They liked how she dressed, delivering “the full impact of the Streisand profile. This is no Ugly-Duckling-turned Swan; she’s improved on the fable. As revised by Barbra Streisand. . . duckling is quite a dish in its own right.”

Streisand wasn’t just “good for the Jews,” if you will allow me that expression, but she was good for the Italian-, Hispanic-, Asian-, African- and for the other “-American” talents who came after her. So this is what America looks like? It looks like everyone. In terms of moving fashion forward, on that April night in 1965, Streisand’s star turn at Bergdorf Goodman softened the boundaries between the Old Guard rules and New Guard innovations. The lasting message, just like Streisand’s, is permission. For the next twenty-five years, fashion and society opened lots of doors together and danced right through them, whether it was at Mrs. Astor’s on Park Avenue or at Studio 54 on the West Side. Everything from what we wore to what we thought made these some of the greatest seasons ever for personal style.

I’ll stop right here. The point is to celebrate Streisand, whose seventieth birthday was this April, not to sell you on nostalgia for things past. Besides, Mrs. Vreeland always said nostalgia deserved a pop in the nose, or at least she claimed to have punched the literary agent Swifty Lazar in his one night at dinner in Santo Domingo at the Oscar de la Rentas’ when he said, “The problem with you, dollface, is that your whole world is nostalgic.”

She wasn’t having it. “Nostalgia—imagine! I don’t believe in anything before penicillin.” Then Mrs. Vreeland popped him in the nose. But enough about nose jobs. BG

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Photo Credit: Jack  Manning / New York Times / Redux