Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Bubbleator!

I am really proud of this short video my museum helped make. I've talked on this blog before about the enigmatic Bubbleator, and Helen and Peder explain it very well. Even though I'm not in it, one of "my" costumes is, along with the textile room where I dress mannequins. In fact, while they filmed that part, I was just off camera making sure that nothing got touched inappropriately. Which, for a collections person, is basically like having a starring role.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Burden of Knowledge

Yesterday I faced a difficult conundrum. I had to decide whether or not to be a bitch.

Here is the situation: Yesterday was "Bike to Work Day" in Seattle, and my museum had a booth at this big fair in the afternoon. We brought out a vintage bike, had trivia questions, gave away stuff with our logo on it, and had costumed actors there to act all old-timey. Even though the bike was from the 1890s, our PR firm apparently loves the 1920s and so said the actors would be dressed in that period. When the event started, our internal PR director sent around an email with some pictures and again said that the actors were dressed for the 1920s. So I looked at the pictures. You can maybe guess where this is going.

Ok, so the guys are all dressed in generic costumey looks that are roughly appropriate for the 1900s-1920s era. They aren't 100% accurate, but they are fun and get the point across for an event like this. Fine.

BUT THE LADY. She is wearing a long-sleeve white blouse, an ankle-length skirt, a pair of heeled lace-up boots, and she has a flat boater-style hat (her hair was up earlier so I'm not going to nit pick about that). This would all be fine for evoking c. 1900 but not even close for the 1920s.  

So here was my conundrum--do I point out the inaccuracy?  

On the one hand, it seemed very difficult to do it without being awful.  Everyone else is having fun and enjoying an exciting event, and here I am harping on some tiny detail. No one likes that person. But the thing is 1) We are a history museum. We aren't supposed to have a "whatever, no one cares" attitude about historical accuracy, and 2) People other than me would notice the mistake. Ask the general populace about the 1870s and they will shrug, but mention the 20s and they'll start talking about flappers. Maybe not the most accurate picture, but people have a general idea about short skirts and low waistlines. Even non-experts would take one look at this woman and be like "That is not a 1920s look."

Really, the whole problem would be solved as long as no one at the event mentioned the 1920s. All the costumes work as vaguely turn-of-the-century looks. So I did it. I sent an email to our PR head saying I loved the idea of costumed actors, but I thought she should know the looks were more 1900-ish than 1920s. 

She sent me back an email that included a smily-face emoticon, so I'm hopeful that she doesn't hate me. 

Really she should figure out that all this stems from deep jealousy that some woman other than me was hired to wear period clothing and walk around in public. 

Doesn't she know that I would have done that FOR FREE???

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Schiaparelli and Seattle

Yesterday I returned from a trip to New York. I caught up with friends, attended a fantastic symposium about fashion and music (presented by students from my FIT program), and caught the new Costume Institute exhibition at the Met. Last year was the blockbuster Alexander McQueen show, and this year it is all about two female designers: Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. Both are Italian, both use surrealist elements in their designs, and both exude general female awesomeness.

As per my calling in life, I need to make some sort of connection to Seattle. In this case, it actually isn't so hard. First of all, Seattle-based online juggernaut sponsored this year's exhibition, and CEO Jeff Bezos was one of the chairs of the Met Gala--one of the most star-studded fashion events of the entire year. Not everyone may consider Bezos a hometown hero but he has done at least two things right with his life: 1) given tons of money to the museum I work for and 2) orchestrated a scenario in which he gets his picture taken with Anna Wintour and Miuccia Prada. (Apparently it costs extra for them to look happy about it, but whatever. Cheers to you Mr. Bezos for making Nuclear Wintour bow down to your Seattle-based moxie.)

But the Seattle connections don't stop there. Thanks to another rich person with a fondness for museums, there are several Schiaparelli pieces in Seattle collections. Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff was a fabulous Seattle socialite who travelled to Paris to buy clothes. She donated her wardrobe partially to MOHAI and partially to the Henry Art Gallery. The Henry even has one of the trompe l'oeil sweaters responsible for launching Schiaparelli's career in the late 1920s (pictured at the top of this post). They also have this super cool suit:

MOHAI's collection includes a butterfly dress almost exactly like this one from the Met, only in with a slightly different neckline:

I don't have any evidence that Schiaparelli ever visited Seattle, but I do know she met one of my favorite Seattle fashion personalities. You know who I'm talking about: John Doyle Bishop.

In 1973 he made a big splash by showing up to the Spring Bill Blass fashion show with Schiaparelli on his arm. He also presented her with one of his signature "chicken wire" scarves, which she wore to the show.

I could stare at this picture all day.