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The art of window dressing

GLOUCESTER -- Richard Leonard abhors a vacuum. For 30 years, he's stuffed his vintage clothing and furnishings shop, Bananas, with all the rhinestone tiaras, feather boas, top hats, tailcoats, martini glasses, and hand-embroidered linens he can get his hands on.

Leonard's store windows have made him a local celebrity. They're funky installations he has to change constantly because ''customers keep buying the stuff," he says while standing on the sidewalk outside his Main Street shop here and peering at a Fred and Ginger cocktail party setup that was the theme one recent day.

So taken with the windows was artist Susan Erony, who lives around the corner from the store, that three years ago she suggested to Leonard they'd make a terrific exhibition for the nearby Cape Ann Historical Museum, where she was then associate curator.

''A Window on Main Street," the museum's current re-creation of Leonard's greatest hits, is more about Leonard and his Liberace-like taste than it is about the crème de la crème of fashion design. Organized and installed by the merchandise maestro himself, the show sprawls through a spacious and usually austere white-walled gallery that he's filled with favorites, including leopard-print cloth, Barbies, and Bakelite. ''I used to sell the Bakelite," he notes of the retro plastic. Now he holds on to it. ''It's doing so much better than the stock market."

Leonard has scouts on the lookout for him, but he finds things on his own, too. The house where his grandmother lived for 60 years proved a treasure trove. ''She never threw anything out," he says in awed admiration. ''It still gives me shivers when I remember opening the wardrobes with the antique white nightdresses."

At Bananas, you can try on the attire in two dressing rooms, a continuation of the owner's aesthetic. The larger room is lined in faux leopard skin, hung with sepia-toned photos of his great-grandparents, and dominated by a 1940s dresser that represents the last gasp of Art Deco. The smaller one features a '40s TV that video art pioneer Nam June Paik would covet. But its history is humble. ''It was out on my street and I just picked it up," Leonard says.

Leonard has distinguished predecessors. The honor roll of artists who've been involved in store-window displays includes Dali, Rauschenberg, and Warhol. Stores are ''kind of like museums," Warhol once opined. And shows of vintage clothing appear regularly at such august institutions as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Leonard's old clothes are distinctly down-market from the Pucci/Gucci sort that turn up at the Met, though: Hardly anything in his shop costs more than $40.

On display in the exhibition, Leonard's cheeky aesthetic seems the antithesis of Cape Ann art, which is usually identified with the luminous seascapes of Fitz Hugh Lane and the wholesomeness of Winslow Homer. The show is a series of often color-themed vignettes, opening with a kind of reception committee, including a body-builder doll wearing a string of bananas around his hips, a la Josephine Baker. The lineup continues with a cheesy mannequin of Ronald Reagan as a boy and ceramic busts of JFK and Elvis. Schlockmeister artist Jeff Koons would love it.

Ditto for the animal prints wrapped around mannequins whose vacant expressions suggest they enjoyed something other than a sandwich for lunch. This scene has a wall's worth of stuffed gorillas, cheetahs, and baboons -- not real ones, of course. Leonard would no more use a product of the taxidermist's art than he would a product of Tiffany's. It's fake fur and rhinestones all the way.

Leonard's imagination goes into high gear with ''Mother of All Barbies," a giant figure who wears a hoop skirt composed of dozens of gilded Barbie dolls interspersed with golden feathers. Kens adorn the over-the-top headdress. ''Mother" also sports a necklace with rings that have a whiff of S&M about them. (Leonard put a couple of naughty bits into the show, but they're harder to find than the protagonist in the children's book ''Where's Waldo?") ''Mother" is a definitive statement on a 20th-century icon. Leonard does for Barbie what Wagner did for Teutonic gods in ''The Ring."

One of the smallest and simplest pieces in the exhibition -- but one that allows more interpretive leeway than some of the more elaborate scenes -- is ''Angel: A Construction." A limbless mannequin wearing a white sequined bustier, ''Angel" gazes heavenward with the kind of serene expression guaranteed to prolong a wrinkle-free face. White feathered wings are attached to her head; they suggest both a showgirl's headdress and those disembodied Giotto cherubs who are all head, so there's nowhere else to attach their flying equipment.

Did ''Angel" lose her limbs by being bumped around over time, a la the ''Winged Victory of Samothrace"? Or was dismemberment part of this angel's martyrdom? Is she like those virtuous early Christian women who gained sainthood after parts of them were sawed off?

Leonard has his own ''saints" -- a select group of Gloucester women who mind his shop and answer the phones and who will be the models for his May 21 fashion show at the museum. Leonard calls them the ''Bananarettes."

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