A Retort to the New York Times Article: The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection

When I read the September 29 New York Times article ‘The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection” by Vanessa Friedman, I felt I had to correct some of her misconceptions and generalizations about why it may seem black designers are not included in museum collections/exhibitions. Firstly, Friedman doesn’t seem to understand that, regardless of colour, fashion has always been primarily about wealth and privilege. Even when stained and frayed jeans are chic, the wealthiest among us buy designer versions for stupid amounts of money.

There are different types of museums with fashion collections, and different mandates amongst those institutions. Some collect couture and designer fashions that legitimize fashion as an art form; some have a broader spectrum and also collect everyday manufactured and brand-name clothes; some fashion collections are focussed on a specific regional history, culture, or one type of fashion or textile (shoes, hats, lace…) 

True fact – Western fashion was invented by white people. It was born from the Italian Renaissance, developed significantly under Louis XIV’s reign, and was democratized by the French and Industrial revolutions. Since 1870, fashion has come from Parisian haute couture, mass-manufactured brands, 7thavenue and other designer ready-to-wear, and independent tailors and dressmakers. There are no museums, not even those that count scores of thousands of artifacts, that have a complete representative collection of any one of these categories.

Ethnographic fashions are usually housed in different departments of museums. This is because of the curatorial expertise required to research, identify, and care for the vast amount of information needed to understand the history of dress from hundreds of global cultures. Most curators working with Western fashion probably don’t know all the meanings of the motifs that appear in Chinese embroidery, or the various dyeing techniques used by Japanese weavers, or what garments are worn by Zuni girls in the Squash blossom ceremony, or by married Dutch women in Markermeer… nor should they. Fashion is a massively huge topic and every culture has a different story.

With the exception of clothes labelled by the maker and those that came with provenances from donors, museums don’t know who made or designed most of the garments and accessories in their collection. For example, Elizabeth Keckley, who made Mary Todd Lincoln’s clothes are not labelled – it is only because of her association with the president’s wife that her story is known. Even Anne Lowe is known largely because she made Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. These two black women worked as dressmakers and had it not been for their famous clients their identities would likely be forgotten to history, along with the millions of other independent dressmakers, tailors, shoemakers, milliners etc.

The American fashion industry didn’t even promote American designers, black or white, until World War II. It was only when American fashion was cut off from Paris that fashion journalists, in search of something to write about, began reporting on domestic fashion. Most designers until then, (and many still today) worked anonymously or behind a brand name. More information is being unearthed about these previously-unknown designers and makers, but this requires a massive undertaking of research that the internet has only made possible in the last twenty years and omissions aren’t going to be corrected overnight.

Although a few black designers are well known, like the usual triad referred to by Friedman in her article (Lowe, Burrows and Kelly) there are clothes in collections likely not identified as being by black designers because the designer’s name doesn’t appear on the label, such as Anthony Mark Hankins who was J.C. Penney’s in-store brand fashion designer for years. As well, unlike an Asian name, black names don’t always trigger racial identity. Let’s face it, unless you knew otherwise, Patrick Kelly sounds like a red-haired Irishman. There are also black designers whose work is exceedingly rare to find extant examples, such as Khadejha, whose Kanga cloth minis and maxis were displayed in the windows of Gimbels department store in 1967, and Jules Parker whose feathered swimwear and metal breastplates were featured in a Jet magazine article in 1974.

Since Stephen Burrows wowed Paris alongside four other American designers at the ‘Battle of Versailles’ fashion show in 1973, black fashion designers have become more visible and numerous in the fashion industry. There are hundreds of black designers working today and their clothes will filter into museum collections in the coming years as they are offered up for donation by their current owners. Very few museums buy contemporary clothes, as limited budgets for collection purchases are saved for the rarest pieces that scarcely include anything made within the last fifty years. 

Finally, museums that have representative collections of black designers may not have those pieces on display all the time. Aside from an exhibition about black designers, is it even relevant or appropriate to tell the audience the racial background of every designer? What about their gender identity, sexual orientation, political activity or religious affiliation? Sometimes a fashion exhibition is just about clothing – its construction, ornamentation, inspiration, and beauty, not who made it. As well, Most museum exhibitions are developed with the idea that they will attract a large audience. This is why Dior has been the topic of so many exhibitions in museums around the world over the past few years. A museum about ships may have many stories, but the Titanic will always bring in the biggest crowd.

In short, museums collect primarily what they are offered and most collections simply don’t have a lot to pull from when it comes to fashions by black designers for a variety of reasons – even the Met’s Andrew Bolton combed eBay and Etsy for a particular Stephen Burrows dress for his upcoming exhibition. Friedman probably doesn’t go out of her way to buy fashions by black designers and offer them to museums for posterity but does that make her a racist?

Syracuse University Collection

What brought me to Syracuse last week was a trip to the university to lecture to the fashion design students about footwear history. I also had the opportunity to see their Sue Ann Genet costume collection, which is amazingly good. I didn’t take any photos in the storerooms, but there were racks and racks of 20th century fashions ranging from Edwardian evening gowns to Bill Blass jackets beaded by Lesage in Paris. Jeffrey Mayer, Professor of Fashion Designer and Curator of the costume collection showed Kenn and I around storage, as well as their exhibition about winter fashion currently on display:

Professors Jeffrey Mayer and Kirsten Shoonmaker with me in their ‘Let it Show’ winter fashion exhibition

Onondaga Historical Society Museum, Syracuse, NY

Just got back from a whirlwind trip to Syracuse where I spoke at the Syracuse University on shoe history, and then saw some amazing costume collections at the University, behind the scenes at the Rochester Museum of Science, and at the Onondaga Historical Society Museum that had an exhibition of Victorian clothes as well as other interesting things on display.

A spectacular Iroquois beaded shirt, 1850s/60s, but difficult to see under the plexi
The Brannock device was invented in Syracuse!
Doll’s Bloomer costume, early 1860s
View of the Victorian clothes on display

Oakville shows blue jeans “From Workwear to Everywhere”

Oakville Museum has a great show on this summer “From Workwear to Everywhere” (July 19 – September 1, 12 – 7 p.m. weekdays, 12 – 5 p.m. weekends) at the Queen Elizabeth Community and Cultural Centre. This past spring, curator Carolyn Cross asked local Oakvillians to share their stories and any vintage denim they might have tucked away for an exhibition about blue jeans. The resulting display follows the long history and meaning of blue jeans including social, political, even environmental aspects of the fabric. 

“We have stories that run from heartwarming to hilarious. Who knew denim could be so all-encompassing!” said Carolyn Cross in a recent article about the exhibition. We checked out the show last week and loved it (which means we will steal the idea for a future show at the FHM.) 

View of the exhibition From Workwear to Everywhere

Head to Toe at the Niagara Historical Society Museum

I had the pleasure of speaking to the Niagara Historical Society Museum in Niagara-on-the-Lake a couple of nights ago. Their current feature exhibition is called From Head to Toe and highlights some of the best fashion treasures from their collection. Some of my favourites included two dresses worn by sisters who were photographed wearing the dresses; a brown and black striped silk dress by Charles Worth from the 1870s, an 1880s grey silk taffeta, black lace and steel beaded dress, and a paisley mantle with applied beadwork. The exhibition closes October 31 .

Silver Screen to Mainstream

When we were in Chicago a couple of weeks ago we caught a great exhibition at the Chicago History Museum. The exhibition focussed on American fashion in the 1930s and 1940s, especially styles influenced by Hollywood, although there was a good cross section of French couture, high-end Chicago labelled garments, as well as humble frocks made from patterns at home.

Curated by Columbia College professor of fashion design Virginia Heaven, the show consisted of about thirty garments, as well as shoes and accessories. As Chicago was also a centre of the department store catalogue fashion world, there is also emphasis placed on the clothes available during that time from companies like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. It’s a great show and will be on until January 2020.

Cleveland Museum of Art

A quick trip to Chicago this past week took us home via Cleveland. Our trip to Cleveland this past February was a disaster because all the museums were closed for the polar vortex. This was Cleveland’s last chance… Fortunately, we enjoyed the trip this time and although we only had enough time to visit one museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art was worth the trip. The medieval and religious statuary (Buddhist et al) was particularly impressive. Kenn took a few hundred photos – here are some of the fashion and textile highlights:

Portrait of a man in a leather jerkin/doublet, c. 1610-1615
Portrait of a woman, 1619
Feathered cape, c. 1850s
Late 14th century Italian lady’s belt (girdle)
Buddhist priest’s patchwork robe embroidered with 991 Buddhas, 1400s

The woman’s portrait from 1619 and the man’s portrait from 1610-15 were both impressive for the details in the clothing. The feathered cape was displayed amongst a selection of Native American pieces with a discussion over whether it is an indigenous or fashion piece. As the feathers were swansdown, peacock and quail, I favour a European origin. The medieval girdle was longer but the closeup shows the details — I have never seen an actual example before. The Chinese Buddhist robe was made up from many patches (a sign of humility), and the upper left corner has the Buddhas sewn upside down because when it is draped over the shoulder, they will appear right side up. The painting of the black man listening to white musicians is allegorical about racial segregation, but from a clothing perspective I thought it was interesting he is shown wearing overalls which made me wonder when overalls were introduced as a labourer’s garment.

Camping It Up On The First Monday In May

Last night’s Met gala event for their latest exhibition ‘camp’ was all about being ‘extra’ — tacky, over-the-top, cheesy, artificial, tasteless, ostentatious, exaggerated, and probably gender and age inappropriate… Needless to say, the fashions worn on the red carpet were not really about clothes, but costume one-offs. There was no point to judging who wore what best because everyone went campy.

However, I thought there were some looks worth noting:

Zendaya’s transformation from a dress of grey ash into a Cinderella blue ball gown – total Disney Camp!

Dressing Toronto – November 1-30

We just opened Dressing Toronto in conjunction with Myseum at the Toronto Media Arts Centre (location and opening times below). The show surveys some of the sources from where Torontonians acquired their clothing over the past 150 years.

The selection of garments was the result of picking examples from the collection that had Toronto labels, were not by designers currently working, and fit the available contemporary and original store mannequins. Two of the Victorian dresses didn’t have labels, but they did have known provenances with names of the original wearers, including the sister of Major MacKenzie, after whom Major MacKenzie Drive is named.

The oldest piece, a man’s tailcoat from about 1870 has the label ‘D. Stevenson, Toronto’ – a mystery tailor I have yet to track down any info about. The most elaborate garment is a 1914 wedding dress by the high-end ladies’ dressmaker and tailor ‘O’Brien’s Ltd.’ A couple of 1940s dresses from Simpson’s and the T. Eaton Company represent the two big department stores, and imported garments from the 1950s and 1960s made expressly for Holt Renfrew and Creeds, represent those two luxury retailers. The balance of the exhibition is a selection from some of the best known Toronto designers, labels and shops from the 1950s to the 1990s: Rae Hildebrand, Rodolphe, Tip Top Tailors, Pat McDonaugh, Poupee Rouge, Claire Haddad, Maggie Reeves, Marilyn Brooks, Winston Kong, Loucas Kleanthous, Linda Lundstrom, D’Arcy Moses, Peach Berserk, Siren…

Dressing Toronto is on display November 2 – 30 at the Toronto Media Arts Centre, 32 Lisgar street: Wed/Thurs/Fri 11-7; Sat 11-6; Sun 12-5. I will be conducting guided tours of the exhibition, with more discussion about the Toronto fashion industry, on November 9 and November 23, at 6 p.m. Tickets are free, but have to be reserved through myseumoftoronto.com