Barbra Streisand Channeled Klimt’s ‘Woman in Gold’ in This Shimmering Dress

Costumer to the stars Ray Aghayan brought the famed painting to life with his spectacular design.
Barbra Streisand; gold gown designed for her by Ray Aghayan; detail of Gustav Kilmt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907
Barbra Streisand at the Scopus Award Gala in 1984 (left) wearing the gold gown (center) she commissioned Ray Aghayan to design for her. The evening dress was inspired by Gustav Klimt’s 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (detail, right).

Rare and unique items of exceptional provenance are often described as “museum quality,” a characterization easily applied to this 1984 beaded gold-lamé dress by Iranian-born designer Ray Aghayan (1928–2011). An exemplary piece of archival fashion, this meticulously crafted treasure is doubly suited for museum exhibition, as it is not only a masterpiece in its own right but was also inspired by one.

The shimmering creation is an homage to Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I — the pivotal artwork popularized as “The Woman in Gold” thanks to Anne-Marie O’Connor’s 2012 book, The Lady in Gold, and a 2015 film starring Helen Mirren, which chronicle the true story of the painting’s plunder from the Bloch-Bauer family in Vienna by the Nazis and the landmark legal battle to restitute the work to its rightful heirs.

Decades before these literary and cinematic accounts, Klimt’s Art Nouveau masterpiece was brought to life in the 1980s by Aghayan, whose couture interpretation was commissioned by EGOT-winning singer and actress Barbra Streisand.

Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, 1984
A sequined Streisand with Neil Diamond at the Scopus Award Gala

Streisand wore the gown for her 1984 acceptance of the Scopus Laureate Award, bestowed on her by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for her professional accomplishments and her continued advancement of Jewish education. Cut in the Empire style from gold lamé, it mirrors Bloch-Bauer’s face-framing square neckline. Aghayan added delicate off-the-shoulder cap sleeves and gave it an elegant, trimmed-down Regency-style train, in contrast to Klimt’s more dramatic one, which sweeps across the canvas and envelops the sitter in gilded iconography.

Klimt’s motifs were largely inspired by ancient Byzantium, including such artifacts as the circa 547 mosaic of Empress Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, which he visited in 1903. Aghayan’s design is no less detailed in its embellishment, as the entire garment is painstakingly embroidered with thousands of hand-sewn sequins, beads and faceted stones echoing the symbols and dynamic texture of Klimt’s gold-leafed canvas.

Gustav Kilmt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907
Klimt’s iconography and use of gold in his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer were inspired by Byzantine art. These elements were then reinterpreted by Aghayan in his couture creation for Streisand. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Aghayan began his career at just 13, when he assisted his mother, a couturier in Tehran, with her design for a dress for Fawzia Fuad of Egypt, the first wife of the last shah of Iran. He eventually immigrated to the United States and is celebrated for his prolific career designing for television, film and theater productions.

In addition to Streisand, whom he had earlier costumed for the 1975 film Funny Lady, Aghayan’s client list included such stars as Judy Garland, Diana Ross and Julie Andrews. He was nominated for numerous awards, in 1967 winning the first ever Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design, which he shared with equally legendary fashion designer Bob Mackie, who was also his life partner.

Streisand’s stunning gown is offered on 1stDibs by TheRealList, a Philadelphia-based dealer with a collection of covetable vintage fashion. This piece, however, is understandably a special favorite. “It’s the rich history of the designer, the client and the inspiration behind it that elevates this dress to the status of a masterpiece,” says TheRealList’s Alex Cohen. “No photograph can truly capture its essence or remarkable detail. When light hits the dress, every sequin and bead comes to life, radiating a mesmerizing, warm golden aura.”

Detail of a gold evening gown designed by Ray Aghayan
A detail of the gown’s bejeweled, hand-embroidered bodice

That’s a familiar experience for anyone who has seen Klimt’s “Woman in Gold” in person. The dress, like the painting, appears to be almost breathing; its streamlined silhouette and bejeweled surface are restrained yet exuberant, serene yet viscerally dynamic, full of exquisite tension. Fit for an empress and made for Hollywood royalty, it is a truly breathtaking piece worthy of a museum’s collection — or a particularly fabulous closet.

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