Whatever happened to?

(Originally blogged December 24, 2009)

Thomas Hoving died last week. His name may not be familiar to most, but in the museum field Thomas Hoving is remembered as a controversial director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the late 1960s and 1970s. Hoving immodestly recounted his experience at the Met in his book “Making the Mummies Dance”. He was not always likable, or ethical, but he knew how to sell tickets at the door, and the museum world is still dancing in the shadow of Thomas Hoving’s influence every time a blockbuster exhibition opens.

Hoving was influential in changing how museums present themselves. The visitor experience has improved in the last forty years because museums now consider their audiences, producing relevant and popular exhibitions rather than navel-gazing academic diatribes. One of the more popular topics have been fashion history exhibitions. Under Hoving, Diana Vreeland produced the first contemporary retrospective exhibition about Yves St. Laurent. This may not seem like a controversial idea now, but for a museum to mount an exhibition about a living designer was, at the time, unheard of.

Whether a good idea or not (some day I will blog about why I don’t think curators should do retrospectives of living designers), that show proved to museums that the public likes to look at clothing. There had been little respect for the field of fashion history at the time, and only now is the field gaining respect as a serious topic. I was cleaning out an old file (part of the end of year ritual) and came across a brochure from a 1998 conference at the New York University entitled ‘Fashion: The Newest Art’ suggesting it was only then being recognized as something above a trade.

I have had a file called ‘Collectors and Museums’ for over twenty years now, and every time I got a brochure or found an article about some interesting fashion, costume or textile collection somewhere I added it to the file. Coming across this file inspired this blog, but not in the way I thought it would. I thought I might turn the contents of the file into a blog about little known historical fashion and accessory museums but when I started searching out details, I discovered most of these collections had closed.

It’s no secret that the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the Brooklyn museum’s costume collection this year. This will make the Met the largest repository of historical fashion in the world, even after de-accessioning Brooklyn artifacts that duplicate the Met’s already extensive holdings.

Both the Denver Art Museum in Colorado, and Castle Howard in York, England had spectacular ‘Every Dior Out the Door’ close-out sales of their historic fashion collections a few years ago. Similarly, the Nottingham museum of costume in England closed its doors, but I am not sure what happened to their collection. More recently, the Fashion Museum in Abilene Kansas and La Crasia glove Museum in New York City have disappeared (no websites exist and their phone numbers are no longer operational.) Even corporate collections are quietly disappearing, like the Maidenform Museum collection in New York (again no contact information was working when I checked). I don’t know where these collections ended up – perhaps at auction…

It has been difficult to keep up with all the recent museum deaccession auctions. Although I am all for museums honing their collections rather than just amassing huge quantities of junk, some museum auctions have ended in controversy. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) experienced negative publicity for selling off garments from their collection. Usually museums quietly discard their ‘also-rans’ but LACMA advertised their clear-out which resulted in some buyers using the LACMA connection to springboard their own careers. One ‘artist’ bought fifty items and then used the destruction of these garments through redesign for the purpose of promoting himself. One of the worst was a Claire McCardell dress turned into a hobo satchel and witches’ hat.

Like everything else in life, museums are not necessarily forever and its a shame when carefully acquired collections are scattered to the winds. However, despite the disappearance of some collections, and corporate-like buy-outs of others, there are new collections being formed, from the Museo de la Moda, in Santiago Chile, to our own Fashion History Museum (website to be launched in 2010), in Ontario.

If you know of any little gems of fashion and costume related museums, drop us a line in the comments – I would love to amass an updated resource of exceptional fashion museums still in business, and keep tabs on what is being shown and when.

Here’s a couple to get the ball rolling:

The Museum of Vision Science at the University of Waterloo

Christian Dior childhood home and garden, Granville, Normandy