Connected \\ May 19, 2023
A Fashion Fête Fit for an Icon, Plus One Curator’s Favorite Memory of Yolanda
On May 11, nearly 500 people flocked to PEM with one goal in mind: to be dazzling. Their second goal: to honor Massachusetts fashion icon Yolanda Cellucci and celebrate the acquisition of a glittery, jaw-dropping, history-making selection of her outfits to the museum’s fashion collection.
The guest of honor, Yolanda herself, was a vision in white, with a one-of-a-kind bejeweled and feathered headdress. She made sure to give a warm welcome to the nearly 500 attendees and to thank her family, designers, models and all those who supported her throughout her career, naming everyone individually and inviting them to the stage for their own special photo moment. She made time for every guest – ages seven to 70 and up – and signed numerous copies of her book, Beyond the Glitz and Glamour. Between Yolanda's well wishes and the shimmering fashion, it was definitely a night to remember!
PEM staff members aren’t opposed to a little pizazz (see COO Kurt Steinberg’s bowtie collection, or Director of Merchandising Victor Oliveira’s love of Iris Apfel). Meeting Yolanda was a highlight for several PEM employees who grew up hearing her name in Massachusetts, including me. I first met the fashion entrepreneur nearly two decades ago while shopping for a prom dress. Unfortunately, the pictures of that spectacular purple frock are lost to time, but the memories are still vivid.
I was 17 and edgy. I didn’t wear what most girls wore during my high school years. This was the early 2000s, so you can imagine the foldover yoga pants (which are back!), tiny tees, layered spaghetti straps and Ugg boots. My style belonged in previous decades. As the youngest of four siblings, I listened to my older brother’s punk music, stole his studded belts and drew all over my Converse high tops. I also loved a sparkle: My oldest sister’s ‘80’s shoulder-padded and sequined frocks looked great with my combat boots. I found my community in the theater crowd, where I specialized in the dramatic heroines of Greek tragedies and Shakespeare. I dyed my hair every color of the rainbow and had piercings that made my grandparents wince. So when it came time for prom, my mom knew I would need something that stood out.
Prom dress shopping was brutal! After hitting up all the popular department stores, I left the mall discouraged. Nothing looked great, but more importantly, nothing felt great. My mom said we needed to try boutiques. A neighbor had suggested Yolanda’s, in the next town over. Our neighbor raved about the store’s services and how it was an experience over other retailers. I was in!
Yolanda’s showroom as it looked in 1973. Photograph of models on staircase, Yolanda's, Waltham, MA, Dec. 9, 1973, Yolanda Cellucci Papers, MSS 1871, Box 2, Folder 5, Item 3. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.
I remember walking up the staircase into a large, open showroom. The entire place was painted with sparkles: sequined dresses, hats, shoes – even the furniture seemed to dance in the light. I was definitely the youngest, most grungy-looking girl in the store. But the people that worked there came right up to me and my mom to ask what we were looking for. I felt that they saw me and respected me. I was whisked away into the rows of garments and asked what my favorite colors were and who I wanted to look like. It felt like an art project!
I remember feeling that the quality of dresses I tried on was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. They fit better and made me feel more powerful than anything I had ever tried on at the mall. It was clear to me, even in my teenage years, that these dresses were made with love.
The dressing rooms were arranged around a lounge area, where my mom relaxed and waited for me to come out in something I liked. I remember putting on that purple silk dress, the one with the handkerchief hemline (ahem, also back in style!) and sparkly bodice. It made me feel both beautiful and confident. It felt like me – one of a kind!
Thank you, Yolanda, for giving teenage me the gift of confidence. I wore that dress on prom night and carried its power with me for many years afterward.
Associate Curator Lydia Peabody with Yolanda Cellucci. Photo by Ellie Dolan/PEM.
PEM staff Meg Boeni and Ellie Dolan contributed to this post.