The Dancing King

Pat Cleveland and Stephen Burrows, 1972. Photograph by Charles Tracy

Stephen Burrows believed in making clothes move. The New York-based fashion designer typified the gusto of the city’s downtown crowd in the 1970s and helped define the style of the disco generation through his bold and draped designs, many of which are on display now at the Museum of the City of New York’s new retrospective Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced.

Walking into the exhibit feels like stepping into a time machine: Viewers are instantly dropped into the late 1960s, the formative years of Burrows’s career. The first image in the gallery is a striking photograph of Grace Jones posing alluringly, wearing a metallic chain-mail top which hangs off her body, swaying in the picture. This image of Jones sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit.

Actress Barbara Carrera (left) and model Karen Bjornson in matte jersey, color-block “train” dresses, 1973. Photograph by Charles Tracy

Draping was one of Burrows’ specialties, and is highlighted in the exhibit. His ability to create pieces that fall loosely over the body’s curves made all of his designs fluid and non-confining. A quote accompanies Burrows’ designs: “When they told me at the Fashion Institute of Technology that everything had to be on the straight or seams couldn’t be crooked, I just did it my way.”

Members of Stephen Burrows’s “commune” in the first collection of Stephen Burrows’ World for Henri Bendel, Central Park, 1970. Photograph by Charles Tracy

The energy of the period is enhanced by the music piping through the speakers of the room: old-school ditties by Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Burrows’s aesthetic may have exemplified the youthful exuberance of the disco era, but his bold clothing and vivid colors are not lost on today’s runways. Many designer collections that incorporate animated print work and unique color combinations contain traces of Burrows. But he’ll always be remembered as the king of dance, the one who really made the garments move.

Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced is on view now at the Museum of the City of New York.

By Claire Stern

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