Betsy and Alfred S. Bloomingdale at a charity event in the 1960s.
When Betsy Bloomingdale died Tuesday—perhaps at 93, perhaps not; she could be marvelously cagey about her age—it marked another chapter closed in a bygone golden age of French couture’s American clientele. It was a remarkable assemblage of women—socialites, heiresses, political power players, patronesses, and benefactors—who molded an indelible image of what it meant to be glamorous and regal in a country that eschews aristocracy. As the wives of politicians and business titans, they understood that grand expressions of personal style were a way to exert one’s cultural influence, forming intimate relationships with fashion houses in a vibrant couture establishment that has now largely faded.
Among a group—Nancy Reagan, Nan Kempner, Pat Buckley, and others—whose intuition for clothing was much celebrated, Ms. Bloomingdale stood out. Her friends and admirers spoke frequently of her singular sensibility, pointing to a grasp of fashion propriety that may seem obsolete, but is nonetheless a forgotten art.
“I think she is the last of the great women of style,” Valentino told Women’s Wear Daily, on the occasion of a 2009 exhibition of Ms. Bloomingdale’s couture collection at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. “Women we do not see around much anymore, women who change dress three times a day. All this seems so old and démodé, but in Betsy there is such a joy in wearing nice clothes, such a sense of humor in having fun with fashion.”
A look of delight seemed permanently fixed on Ms. Bloomingdale’s face, but it also showed in the clothes. She had a flair for color; like Mrs. Reagan, she adored red, but frequently appeared at events in other California-sunset shades—burnt oranges and amber yellows that affirmed that stateliness did not have to mean black, white, or pastel. And she loved embellishment: her Dior, Chanel, and Givenchy dresses were often feats of feathers, fur, or floral appliqué, accessorized with just the right belt, an exacting set of earrings, or a daring hat. She had a great eye for texture that flattered: flounces of ruffle at the neckline, grand swaths of fabric, and oversize bows.
Her exquisite taste made her a regular fixture on Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed List, and she was named to its Hall of Fame in 2009. But more important, her fashion sense played a key role in her status as one of Nancy Reagan’s closest confidantes: she became known as the “First Friend” during the Reagan administration (she was otherwise called “Good Queen Betts”), “dispensing advice about clothes, decorating, and entertaining,” as Vanity Fair special correspondent Bob Colacello recounted in a 1998 article about the Reagans’ inner circle.
But her status as a patron of the Paris couture houses—which peaked during their last great huff, between the end of World War II and the 1980s—is what set her fashion legacy in stone. Though Betsy was born into a world of glamour, she married into the Bloomingdale fashion dynasty, and it was her husband Alfred’s successful quest to make the credit card a major American export that brought her to French couture, first with a Balmain dress, in 1961, and soon after to the houses of Valentino, Chanel, Givenchy, Courrèges, and, most significantly, Dior. “My husband started Diner’s Club [one of the first credit-card companies] and we went to Europe,” she told The Wall Street Journal in 2009. After Alfred hit it off with Dior’s managing director, she recounted, “Alfred said, ‘You buy your clothes at Dior.’”
It was through this relationship with Dior that Ms. Bloomingdale would have perhaps her biggest impact on the world of fashion. Marc Bohan had recently taken the helm of the house, after the namesake designer’s precocious successor, Yves Saint Laurent, was ousted and struck out to create his own line. Saint Laurent’s designs immediately revolutionized the fashion world with a shock of daring vitality, and Bohan’s designs—minimalist, columnar silhouettes, often with flourishing bows and trains—could seem conservative in contrast to Saint Laurent’s thigh-grazing hemlines and subversive sensuality.
But while Saint Laurent left the worlds of fashion and pop culture indelibly changed (if not saddled with a fixation on youth), Bohan’s work for Dior set the stage for a generation of American women to modernize elegance in the public eye. Undoubtedly, Ms. Bloomingdale’s patronage, her status as a kind of spokeswoman for Bohan, created an American audience for his look. The influence of that aesthetic was felt in the work of American designers such as James Galanos, Oscar de la Renta, Arnold Scaasi, and Bill Blass, who with Nancy Reagan helped create a look of glamor and feminine authority in the 80s that trickled down from the White House and into the workplaces women were suddenly populating in droves.
In the late 80s and 90s, the market for haute couture faded, and even Ms. Bloomingdale became a devotee of ready-to-wear, sporting off-the-rack designs from Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, and Tory Burch, still with great élan. At Vanity Fair’s 2015 Oscar party, she appeared in her signature red: a silk gazar gown with fabulous sleeves and a belt; it was a Bohan piece from Ms. Bloomingdale's own archive that she’d worn to a party for Forbes almost 30 years ago. But she looked neither a vestige of an earlier time nor a mutton in lamb’s clothing; as always, she was grinning, and she looked perfect.
Betsy Bloomingdale and friends in Beverly Hills, c. 1968.