A Conversation with FIT Museum Director Dr Valerie Steele
Elise By Olsen shares an excerpt from the tenth – and final – issue of Wallet: A Conversation with Fashion Historian and Museum Director at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Dr Valerie Steele
This excerpt is taken from the tenth issue of Wallet:
Dr Valérie Steele is a fashion historian and director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Chief curator of the museum since 1997 and director since 2003, Dr Steele has curated over 25 exhibitions and written or edited over two dozen books on the history of fashion. In 1997, she founded Fashion theory: the journal of dress, body and culture, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, and is a pioneer in the study of fashion, in and out of academia.
Elise By Olsen: How did you get into fashion, and fashion history and theory, in the first place?
Valerie Steele: It was accidental. I’ve always been interested in fashion in a hippie way, not so much buying trendy clothes as thrift stores. When I was in my first term at Yale Graduate School, where I was doing a PhD in Modern European Cultural History, our assignment was to report on two scientific papers on a selected topic. I don’t remember my research, probably something about the French Revolution, and my classmate, Judy Coffin, read two articles in the feminist journal, Panels, debating the meaning of the Victorian corset. Was it oppressive and dangerous for women? Or was it sexually liberating? It was as if a light bulb came on. I realized: fashion is part of culture. I can make fashion history! So, I went into a library and saw that there was a lot of fashion journalism, as well as a rather archaic type of costume history, tracing the changes in clothing design, but it wasn’t. was not really what you would call cultural history. So I said to myself: it’s great, the field is wide open. I had no idea this would make me unemployable as a historian for over a decade. No one wanted to hire a fashion historian – from most academics’ point of view, that sounded like a totally frivolous and ridiculous topic.
EBO: Incredible. Let’s focus on the evolution of fashion history and its relationship to physical archives and museums. How have the conditions around fashion archives – and the theory or critical discussion surrounding them – changed thanks to your vast experience?
VS: Oh, that has changed a lot. Institutions and individuals have been collecting fashion for centuries. You even had someone like Madame Tussauds, who gathered the clothes of famous and notorious people to put her figures in wax. Art museums and history museums have collected fine examples of pre-modern clothing, such as Chinese dragon robes or 18th century aristocratic clothing. Until the 1960s, most “costume” shows tended to be chronological shows of elite women’s clothing. It wasn’t until the 1970s, first in England and then in the United States, that you had exhibitions that were more like fashion shows. Cecil Beaton organized an exhibition at the V&A in 1971, showcasing fabulous clothes from various fashionable friends. And you had, of course, Diana Vreeland at the Met’s Costume Institute playing fast and free with the story, but styling the clothes in a theatrical and exciting way. This helped destroy the aura of antiques that had always hovered over the historical fashion display. It was the start of the modern fashion exhibition. Meanwhile, the traditional assumption that fashion was trivial began to be questioned, as a few people began to question whether certain types of clothing might not be interesting and intellectually valid to study. You had Anne Hollander’s See through clothing, and others studying the subculture, who pointed out that dress was not necessarily trivial and oppressive; it could be a way of expressing resistance to the dominant culture.
EBO: At what point did the fashion archives – whether clothing or otherwise – become important to you and your work?
VS: As soon as I had my epiphany in doctoral school, in the fall of 1978, I immediately started going to the archives. I’ve been to the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Costume Institute, and the Wadsworth Atheneum. While living in England I saw costume collections in London, Bath, Liverpool, Manchester and Leicester. Leicester has a really fantastic collection of corsets. Looking at the actual clothes was super important. For example, most historians had believed in accounts of women with a 13 inch waistline, but I was there measuring hundreds and hundreds of corsets, and I realized that was overkill or even mythical. .
EBO: You have been director of the FIT Museum since 2003. What does this job consist of?
VS: Being a museum director means building a collection and building a team. Both are of equal importance. A Kunsthalle organizes exhibitions without having its own collection, but if you have a collection it is much easier to develop thoughtful and well-researched exhibitions. Fortunately, my predecessors, such as Robert Riley and Richard Martin, have put together an excellent collection. My most urgent task was to recruit talented young museum professionals as curators, educators, curators, clerks, media and exhibition specialists. With an excellent team, we could produce books, symposia and lecture series, while continuing to organize four fashion exhibitions per year, besides helping the FIT graduate school and showing students how to organize a fashion show.
EBO: To what extent are you currently involved in building the museum’s permanent collection?
VS: Absolutely. Because we have a limited amount of space and money, we have to be careful with what we collect. Many of our acquisitions are for future exhibitions, but we are also looking for items that we will display repeatedly, as they are important to the history of fashion. We don’t just collect designer couture and ready-to-wear, we are also interested in street style and subcultural styles. We had an exhibition on Gothic fashion and the Gothic subcultural style, and we have a hip hop show coming up. We are also increasingly engaged in collecting clothing designed or worn by Blacks, Aboriginals and people of color. The FIT museum has been collecting black designer clothes for decades, so we have a good archive. Like most museums, we have a lot more women’s clothing than men’s clothing, but we also have thousands of men’s clothing and accessories. What we’re looking for is directional fashion – clothes that advance fashion and inspire other designers. We don’t do a lot of one-off designer retrospectives as they tend to be hagiographic, we prefer thematic shows. Our recent exhibition on the color pink explored how pink is not just a color for sweet little girls, but is actually associated with rebellion, Act Up, the LGBTQ + community, along with popular music – from punk to rap. , and with different cultures from East Asia to Latin America and the African Diaspora.
EBO: Can you detail the archiving practices of FIT – strategies, policies and of course its history? Does the collection serving as a device for making exhibitions also have other purposes?
VS: I’ll start by answering the last question, because I think exhibitions should be a place of both inspiration and education, and not just didactic teaching, but lifelong learning. life and critical thinking. So, we definitely want to collect dresses that will be good for thinking. In addition to our permanent collection, which we keep primarily for research and exhibition, we have a separate study collection that is used in literally hundreds of courses per year. Teachers can take out a particular robe, put it on a table, and turn it over, so that students can see how it is constructed. We work with the FIT faculty to create special media, some that are fashion history, and others that address themes like surface decoration or sewing. Of course, students also visit our exhibits where they can see hundreds of other garments on display. You always see students drawing in our galleries.
EBO: What are your priorities when building the collection and making it available through various curatorial or editorial activities?
VS: Working with the collection is fascinating because it is collaborative work. The curator is like a director on a film or a teacher in a classroom, who comes up with the idea for the show and how to tell the story. But curators need to work with conservators who are trying to figure out how to dress clothes in a safe, historically accurate, and visually compelling way. If a dress is super fragile, maybe it can’t be mounted on a mannequin, maybe it has to lie down. The exhibition design team creates a showcase in which clothing and accessories are displayed. When I saw Judith Clark’s exhibit, Malignant muses in Antwerp, I came back and called a meeting of the museum staff saying “This is a new paradigm”. Starting with my show, Gothic: dark glamor, we created scenes, almost like movie sets. I wanted to show that fashion designers working in goth fashion weren’t just copying goths – because that was the stereotype, fashion designers were just copying a subcultural style. Designers like Alexander McQueen, Olivier Theyskens and Rick Owens who worked in the Gothic style, did not copy children. Rather, they were inspired by the same type of visual material, like vampire movies. Simon Costin was the artistic director, and with him we created several sets: a cemetery with mourners, another vignette with a coffin from which a mannequin in a vampy Mugler dress emerged, a laboratory where the scientists create fashion monsters, and a ruined Gothic castle. So many Gothic children have visited me that when a young man dressed in black came to the reception, the guard would simply say, “It’s on the third floor!”
The tenth and final issue of Wallet is out now.