Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Friday, November 25, 2016

Grief, Action, and St. Catherine

For four years now I've been posting on (or around) November 25th about St. Catherine's Day--the day that celebrates the patron saint of archivists, couture house workers, and single women over 25. In years past I've gathered my friends, donned silly hats, and toasted to history, fashion, and life without husbands.

But this year, I haven't been feeling it. Since the election I've been more in the mood to wear a black veil than my 90s Blossom hat. I realize though that going into full Victorian mourning would only play into the conservative taunts that liberals are just being "dramatic" about Donald Trump's election. "Liberal Idiot Now Only Wears Black Crepe" the Breitbart headline would read.

Which is to say that all of this melancholy has got me thinking differently about Saint Catherine this year. Her legend tells the story of an educated woman from a privileged background who spoke out against persecution and injustice. For those of us who grieve the results of the election but have the privilege to possibly sail through the next four years mostly unscathed, we need to resist the lure of that comfort.

Of all the things Cathy is a patron saint of, the ones that resonate with me the most is her patronage of archivists and educators, couture house and millinery workers, and single women over the age of 25. So this year, rather than writing goofy prayers to a (most likely) fictional saint, I'm going to make some Catherinesq post-election pledges.

As a museum professional: I pledge to be inclusive in my collecting and seek out opportunities to tell stories about people who are underrepresented in museums. I pledge to remember that I do not preserve objects for their own sake but for the benefit of the people of the community. I pledge to not only tell the happy, triumphant stories of history but also the ones that are painful and difficult. I also pledge to not always be the storyteller, to step back and amplify other voices, and allow those voices to educate me.

As a person who loves fashion: I pledge to care about those to make my clothing, and the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing. I pledge to buy fair trade, to buy from companies that pay their workers a living wage, and support local businesses whenever possible. I also pledge to buy less, to care for the clothing I already have, and dispose of unwanted clothing as conscientiously as possible.

As a single woman who has the gift of free time and disposable income: I pledge to seek out concrete actions and activities that I can do, to sign up and show up, to push myself, and to also take time to recharge. I pledge to increase the annual amount that I give the charitable causes. I also pledge to be conscious of self-congratulation about any of my actions, thinking not in terms of "enough" but always seeking to do more.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Dark Corner of the Internet

In a few short weeks MOHAI is opening a major exhibition about food culture in Seattle called Edible City. Even though food is the focus, there will also be clothes-- including some chef's jackets and dresses worn to a famous Seattle restaurant.  For various reasons, we wanted a couple of the mannequins to not be the usual ones we had in stock. So I was tasked with finding some new mannequins.


Since we had a limited budget and limited time, it meant finding something from a retail supply company rather than a custom order from someplace fancy. So I went online to search. And I'm here to tell you that the internet world of mannequins was grimmer and even more upsetting than I expected.

I realize that the bar for icky things on the internet is set pretty high, but I still feel like this was a dark little corner I had stumbled upon. 

The idea was to get mannequins that were a bit more dynamic and lifelike than our regular ones. So I guess, faces? But if the faces are painted, you sort of need wigs...

Ok, ok, no wigs. Maybe "molded" hair? 

Erm. A little better, I guess, but sort of hard to pass her off as a 1930s housewife, right? 

Hey, oh actually this molded hair one looks a little better... come all the non-white mannequins are specifically listed as "Ethnic" or "African"? 

This...feels a bit racist. I guess it is good that they even sell mannequins that aren't white, but you lose points if the white version of the style is "female mannequin" and the black version is "ethnic female mannequin." And you definitely lose points if all your "African" mannequins are in a separate special category, away from all your "regular" (white or abstract) mannequins. 

Oh there was also a site that used "Latin style" as the euphemism for mannequins with larger butts. 

Even without the casual/blatant racism, there were lots of weird categories on the sites. Some that I really didn't want to click on...

And some that were a little more intriguing. Like a whole section of "Euro Male" mannequins???

Tell me more!!

And then there was just straight-up nightmare fodder. 

Aren't you glad I started blogging again?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Not Included in the Lecture

Last night I gave a lecture at MOHAI called "In Search of Seattle Style" in which I combed through Seattle's past to try to unravel the history behind the city's complicated relationship with fashion. But that is not what this post is about. This post is about how distracted I get when I do historical research because old-timey magazines are hilarious.

1) Is this or is this not an ad for cocaine?
2) Were people using cocaine to heat their houses? 
3) Or is it like "fuel your furnace" *wink *wink?
4) I have never been in the market for cocaine, but 200 lbs for $1.00 does sound like a good deal


Something about the minimalism of this ad just gets me. It isn't actually clear what happens when call Peggy. It sort of sounds like "Are you overweight? Then call Peggy because she loves to talk about that kind of stuff." Actually, I hope that Peggy Eckford is actually an amazing listener and empowering speaker and just tells you that you are already wonderful, strong, powerful, and beautiful. And when you hang up you are just like: 

Wow Peggy. No wonder your results are guaranteed. 

I also enjoyed this image caption: 

The caption says:
Who Has Just Closed Her Life of Eminent Usefulness

When I first read it I didn't get that she had recently DIED and that it was trying to applaud her for a life well lived. What it sounds like is that she is still alive but someone is just publicly announcing that the useful period of her life is over. Like that feeling you get when you are in a meeting or with a big group of people and at first everything is great and people are listening to what you are saying, but then you say something incredibly stupid and everyone just goes quiet for a moment? And you are just sitting there thinking "Clara E. Berg has just closed her life of eminent usefulness."

Did you know that before the famous gossip column "Page Six," Seattle had it's own less-successful version on page five:

The author of this column later became a historian and wrote a book called Things That Happened In Various Places.

I also had a giggle over the photos in a feature about the charity work of local society matrons. My goal is to be this woman:

But some days I feel more like this woman:

Sunday, August 21, 2016

22 Hours in Portland

This weekend I took a trip to Portland to see the exhibit Native Fashion Now at the Portland Art Museum. For various reasons I decided to keep it short. I took the 6pm train from Seattle, and the 7pm out of Portland the next day.

It was a perfect little trip, except for an issue with my Business Class seat which I HAD PAID EXTRA FOR and I narrowly escaped going into full-on, Ross Geller, First World Problem meltdown mode.

But it got sorted out and I ended up having a lovely train ride and an even lovelier evening in my hotel room. Is there any feeling in the world quite like walking into a nice hotel room which you have all to yourself? It is fantastic. You dump your stuff on the floor, make a throne out of the sixteen pillows they gave you, and see if Say Yes to the Dress is on TLC. 

The next day, I was off to the Portland Art Museum.  

Native Fashion Now was originally created for the Peabody Essex Museum and is now on tour. Despite the name, it is actually more like 60+ years of Native Fashion, because it starts with some 1950s designs by Lloyd Kiva New.


The main point of the show was to show the diversity and the skill of many different kinds of Native fashion designers. Some are reinterpreting traditional designs and techniques, some are experimental and avant-garde, and some are just making awesome, wearable clothes. 

I lusted after this skirt:

Virgil Ortiz collaboration with Donna Karan

Loved this outfit but knew that I could never pull it off:

Jamie Okuma

This was another favorite:

Dorothy Grant "She-Wolf Tuxedo"

Overall the mannequins and the presentation was top-notch. 

The only thing that seemed weird to me was how most of the jewelry was shown on full torsos. It just felt like too big of a display mount for relatively small objects. 

and the mannequin boobs are keeping it from hanging flat! 

Actually one more thing. While it is always nice to see something fuller-figured in a fashion exhibit, it highlights yet another pitfall of mannequins with heads. If you fill out the body, the head starts to seem...small. 

Sorry mannequin, I'm not trying to body shame you! It is just that, with more minimalist forms, the body can be whatever shape it needs to be, without limbs and heads calling attention to a "standard" size.

After that I wandered around the rest of the museum and saw more cool stuff. I loved this painting where baby Jesus shows us that his textile game is on point: 

Thou shalt put a bird on it

And this trompe l'oeil painting that recreates the experience of finding something old in a museum collection and realizing no one ever properly cleaned it. 

WTF there are PEANUTS back there?!?!

There was also a gallery of contemporary Native art with some serious social messages. This rug was titled Resist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchal Colonization.


I also came across this sculpture and at first I was like Awww cuuuute but then I saw it was maybe crushing a bird with its body?

And then the title of the piece is Seal + Penguin 4 Ever and now I'm even more delighted and confused. 

Next I headed over to the Oregon Historical Society. On the stairs up to their main Oregon history exhibit they had this fun display of artifacts:

This is a great idea, because often you have quirky stuff in the collection that doesn't fit in the main narrative of your core historical exhibit.

I also liked this case which was a great way to get a bunch of your random hats and shoes out on display, and visually say "Oregon is made up of many different kinds of people!"

But I didn't end up taking tons of pictures of this exhibit. There weren't even that many mannequins to make fun of. 

I did find these guys, which I guess are worth a chuckle 

But then I found this amazing wall decal and got a selfie:

Potential rival to the Kansas cow selfie

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Let's All Come Together And Make Fun Of This Fashion Book

Election season got you down? Let's join hands and find something we can all agree on. Like how great it is to make fun of really atrocious fashion history books.

(Sorry mom, there might be some swearing)

Several years ago I started reviewing academic fashion books for a publication called Choice. Most of my reviews have been positive, and only once have I had the pleasure of ripping into one of those books and marking it as "not recommended." This month I got another opportunity.

The book is called Fashion Innovators and it basically a two-volume encyclopedia of fashion biographies.

So I crack open the first volume and I notice is that it is almost all text, with only a few portrait illustrations which are creepy and look like police sketches.



So far, so terrifying. I head straight for the Chanel essay because that is a good litmus test of accuracy vs. repeating incorrect old myths. Sure enough, it talked about how she freed women from the corset, introduced the bob haircut, and basically singlehandedly invented fashion of the 1920s -- or as the book puts it, the "flaming 20's."

Ok, so there is definitely blood in the water now. I gleefully flip to the index to see who else is likely to have an error-ridden essay. Instead, I get distracted by a lot of names I don't know. And some I do know...but I'm not sure how they qualify as "one of the most innovative and influential individuals in the development of fashion." Like actors Dijimon Hounsou and Cameron Diaz.

I go to Hounsou's essay and see a pretty brief bit on a modeling career but most of it is about his acting.  Now, each essay includes an "affiliation" sidebar, which is supposed to be about the "primary company or organization with which the individual has been most significantly associated." For example: Liz Claiborne's affiliation is "Liz Claiborne, Inc". But for Djimon Hounsou, his nearly full-page sidebar is about the movie Amistad. And no, they don't make some interesting case about it being a fashion movie. It is just a summary of the plot and what Hounsou had to say about working on it.  

I find other mystifying essays, many about people who are famous for things other than fashion. Such as Ellen Stewart, who did some fashion designing but is mostly known as an influential theater director and producer. Or doll designers Madame Alexander and Robert Tonner who are...famous for making dolls.

I also start noticing some glaring omissions. Where is Paul Poiret? Jeanne Lanvin? Elsa Schiaparelli? I go back to the Publisher's Note see that these biographies are mostly taken from a magazine called Current Biography which began publication in 1940. Ok, so I guess the scope of this book is actually 1940 onward, and maybe I can concede that their peak years were prior to that. BUT THEN YOUR BOOK SHOULD BE TITLED FASHION INNOVATORS: 1940-PRESENT.

But this also starts to make more sense. I start to think that this book may actually have been written by a robot. They probably did a word search for "fashion" in all their Current Biography essays and just slapped together whatever came up.

The Publishers Note brags that the book has a "strong multi-ethnic, cross-gender focus" so maybe by including Dijmon Hounsou and Ellen Stewart they were trying to have more people of color. Fine. The fashion world could certainly do better on the diversity front. But the thing is, you don't exactly have to grasp for straws to come up with POC who are important and influential in the fashion world. Sure, Hounsou did some modeling and is black. But you know who also fits that criteria who wasn't included? TYSON BECKFORD.

Easily the most successful and well-known male model of all time. 

Once I starting thinking about it, I realized there were lots of POC who would be obvious choices for a book on fashion influencers and innovators but weren't included. Such as:

Robin Givhan
Alexander Wang
Tracy Reese
Isabel Toledo
Prabal Gurung
Hanae Mori
Grace Jones

Also, I'm totally willing to be convinced that Hounsou is more important than I realize. But then MAKE THE CASE in the essay rather than telling me he was in LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE.

And while white people aren't exactly struggling for representation in the fashion world, I still think that a book that made room for Cameron Diaz and Lauren Conrad could have made space for:

Kate Moss
David Bowie
Cecil Beaton
Richard Avedon

Oh more you missed...



It is hard to top that but basically everywhere I looked this book was embarrassingly bad. Many of the essays were 10+ years out of date. For example, the "Life's Work" section of Alexander McQueen's bio ends with his "current" 2002 collaboration with YSL to create a woman's fragrance.

Speaking of the "Life's Work" section, it often included weird descriptions of physical appearance:

A tiny, fragile woman with pale, almost luminous skin, a high forehead, prominent cheekbones, and deepest brown eyes, Mme. Gres was described as looking like "a Sunday school teacher," a "madonna" or "the prioress of a Normandy convent." 

This feels sexist. This is sexist, right?

Or a combination of physical appearance and...other information?

Nat Abelson was five feet seven and one half inches tall, weighed 165 pounds and had gray hair and brown eyes. He was of the Jewish faith and generally voted the Democrat ticket. 

Is there a way to convey that information that doesn't 
sound like I'm reading his FBI file?

I could go on and on. More weird sidebars, a totally useless and half-assed timeline at the end, and typos galore. But I'll leave you with just one final embarrassment.

Are you ready?

Does anything seem off to you about this picture of "Yves St. Laurent"?

For those who don't know, YSL is pretty recognizable. More like this:

At first I thought well maybe when he was very, very young but even then I've never seen a picture of YSL without his glasses. I was just about to draw glasses on the picture when it hit me.

This is Hedi Slimane. He was creative director for Yves Saint Laurent from 2012 to early 2016.


Stay in fashion school, kids!