Now, more than six months after her death, student curators at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology have managed to capture both sides of Bacall in an intimate new exhibit that runs through April 4.
The graduate students relied on garments they helped cull from more than 700 items Bacall donated to FIT over 18 years. And they used clips from a TV show she hosted, interviews and archival photos, covers and sketches to accompany about a dozen looks from her professional costume wardrobe and her personal one.
The idea was to hone in on Bacall's relationship with the fashion world as model, muse and friend to couturiers at home and abroad.
Titled "Lauren Bacall: The Look," the exhibit seizes on a moment that resonated with the students and the museum itself. It was her 1968 appearance as host on CBS in the prime-time, hour-long "Bacall and the Boys," the boys being designers Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro.
The special aired the year Bacall began donating clothes and accessories to the museum, a habit she continued in 22 batches through 1986. On the show, Bacall interviews the couturiers for their fall collections in Paris, modeling some of their creations and profiling the four along the way.
The exhibit, which opened Tuesday, includes three looks she wore that night, including a fuchsia pink mini-dress by Cardin with a moulded pyramid design in a fabric he invented and dubbed Cardine.
"As he promoted it, it could be crushed, washed and even burned and it would keep its shape," said one of the curators, Mindy Meissen.
Bacall demonstrates on air, whipping the dress out of a paper bag to endorse those properties and modeling it herself with long black gloves against a stark white background.
Famed fashion illustrator Joe Eula directed the special, which was produced by the equally famous photographer Milton Greene. Eula's poster promoting the special is part of the exhibit, showing Bacall in a pink jumpsuit and the four designers in black. A sketch Eula did in his signature kinetic style is on display as well, showing Halston fitting Bacall.
Among other looks included in the exhibit is a bright pink wool Norman Norell coat Bacall wore in the 1964 film "Sex and the Single Girl."
Norell, a New York designer, clothed Bacall for work and regular life. His famous tan "subway coat," part of the exhibit, is a sound example of how Bacall often blended the two worlds. Its outwardly simple look is suitable for public transportation but it glistens when opened, exposing a lining of hand-sewn sequins that adorn a matching sheath dress underneath.
Bacall, who died at 89, was still a teen when she landed on the cover of Harper's Bazaar in 1943. It's a cover included in the museum show, along with a 1959 Vogue story that described her in an epic opening sentence:
"Wide-mouthed, with a deep deadeye voice — sounding sexy and faintly mad-at-someone, Lauren Bacall looks the way most American women yearn to look; the way that stops men — American and otherwise — smack in their tracks."
Bacall's brand of panache was uniquely American, Meissen said.
"At the time, they didn't have someone who could be both tough and sensual. They had one or the other in actresses but they didn't have both, and that's what they found in Bacall," she said.
Harper's Bazaar columnist and fashion editor Diana Vreeland, credited with ushering Bacall's entre to Hollywood, once said of The Look: "She's perfect all over and yet she looks like nobody else." The quote is stenciled on a wall of the exhibit.
Bacall's first big moment with love Humphrey Bogart on screen in "To Have and Have Not" is also represented, in publicity photos of Bacall promoting the 1944 film in which she plays sexy lounge singer and World War II French resistance sympathizer Marie "Slim" Browning.
So are the ripples of influence she left behind in fashion, in images of model Karlie Kloss looking Bacall-esque in a 2010 design by John Galliano for Dior, and another of Kate Moss with softly waved hair and big eyebrows in an issue of W magazine from 2004.
The curators found a photo of Bacall and Bogey attending a Dior show in 1952. Another taken 20 years later shows her with Dior's Bohan, chatting after a show in Paris.
Perhaps Bacall herself best summed up her relationship with fashion, Meissen said, when she complained of no air conditioning at a Dior show, adding: "and you have to sit on those damn gilt chairs. Is it worth it? It is."
Follow Leanne Italie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/litalie