Our exhibition Back Home: Polish Chicago opened in May 2022, and as part of our series highlighting stories of Polish Chicagoans, CHM educational assistant Joanna Bak shares a story told through garments in our costume collection that also happens to involve actor Betty White.
While not as large as New York or LA, Chicago features a small but mighty fashion scene. The business hub of the fashion scene in Chicago is the Merchandise Mart, a massive complex made to display retail and wholesale clothing. One designer who carved her way through to Chicago’s fashion shows and retail windows was Polish-born Yolanda Lorente.
Hand-painted silk dress in shades of hot pink, red, yellow, and blue, Yolanda Lorente, c. 1984. All photographs by CHM staff unless otherwise noted.
Fashion designer Yolanda Lorente stated in a 2013 interview with Crain’s Chicago Business, “I went to Saks Fifth Avenue wearing my own hand-painted silk dress, and I said [to myself], ‘If somebody’s going to like this, somebody’s going to say something.’ Americans are very honest with the compliments.”
Her confidence paid off. An employee asked what designer she was wearing, and she told them she made the dress herself. They were impressed by her technique of hand painting silk to create unique motifs that added to the delicate, flowing nature of the fabric.
Hand-painted silk wrap top, skirt, and scarf, Yolanda Lorente, c. 1985.
Lorente’s clothes were ultimately sold at Saks Fifth Avenue and independently. For many years, Lorente had a boutique on North Michigan Avenue, where she displayed her latest designs, which were manufactured in Chicago. She participated in Chicago-based fashion shows and traveled outside the city to teach younger people about design. Lorente also displayed her paintings and non-fashion-related art.
Silk blazer, blouse, skirt, and scarf, Yolanda Lorente, c. 1985.
The loose draping of the silk dresses, kaftans, and shirts Lorente was creating in the 1980s and ’90s helped create a vibe of carefree elegance, a style to which none other than legendary actress Betty White gravitated.
Women’s three-piece skirt suit ensemble with scarf, Yolanda Lorente, c. 1990.
Best known for playing Rose Nylund on the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–92), White was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on January 17, 1922. Her impressive eight-decade career is one that many actors and entertainers aspire to—in both 2014 and 2018, she was awarded a Guinness World Record for “Longest TV Career for a Female Entertainer.”
Yolanda Lorente became a staple of Betty White’s award show ensembles. Her designs make repeat appearances at different awards shows, as White was no stranger to rewearing outfits on the red carpet. At both the 2004 TV Land Awards and the Creative Arts Emmys, she can be seen wearing a pastel green and purple gradient two-piece blouse and skirt.
More recently, White wore a lively multipattern silk tunic of Lorente’s when she appeared on Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2015. Several years earlier, in 2010, White became the oldest person to host the show (after rejecting invitations to host three different times) after an online Facebook page called “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!” went viral.
Betty White with Alan Light at the 1992 Emmys Wearing a Yolanda Lorente dress. Photograph by Alan Light.
Some of the hand-painted silk gowns were sold at auction after White’s death in 2021. A white floral dress and scarf that she wore to the 1992 Emmy Awards and the 1997 Convention of the California Federation of Women’s Club was sold for $4,480. She wore the dress again in a 2012 promo photograph for Betty White’s Off their Rockers, a prank show she hosted. A red floral dress she wore to the American Comedy Awards in 1992 sold for $5,120.
(Left) Evening dress made out of multicolored printed silk and a sash from the same material, Yolanda Lorente, c. 1990; (right) multicolor dress, Yolanda Lorente, c. 1990.
While Lorente is retired from working in fashion, her work is still a part of the Chicago fashion community, and her pieces—though none worn by White—are a treasured part of CHM’s vast costume collection.