Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cheating on my Boyfriend

My co-leader for the summer walking tour I am leading (tickets on sale now!!) jokes that John Doyle Bishop is my "boyfriend" because I'm so excited by any and all things JDB. I always sort of roll my eyes at the joke because being born 70 years apart is just ONE of the reasons why I'm pretty sure it wouldn't work out between us.

But if we go with it, and decide that my "type" is fabulous gay men who worked in fashion in Seattle before I was born, then this week I definitely cheated on my boyfriend. This week I met John Eaton.

It all started innocently enough. One of my coworkers in the library was processing a new collection and came across a reference to a designer named John Eaton. Since no one seemed to know anything we started searching. First someone found an ebay listing for a photo of him. Then I found an article in the Seattle Times historical database. Before long, we knew the following things: 1) While he did design clothes his specialty was hats. He had a shop across the street from Frederick & Nelson called "John Eaton, Of Course!" and later in life he taught millinery classes in Seattle. 2) In the 1960s he was living with his "business partner" James Neher and two poodles named Gigi and Voulez-vous. Now, I don't want to jump to conclusions about men who live with other men and own poodles, but I think the implication there is pretty clear.

Be still my heart!

The more I looked, the more there was to love. First of all, it looks like he was pretty much the biggest deal in hats the city has ever had. His shop was one thing, but his major legacy was his teaching. I saw one quote that claimed all milliners currently working in Seattle either learned directly from him or from one of his students. Second, it turns out that my hunch about him being gay wasn't just an educated guess. In the 1980s the Seattle Times did a feature about gay couples in Seattle and "Jim and John" were included as a happy couple that had been together 33 years. When faced with snide remarks, James said "we chose to ignore it and act like gentlemen."

I can't wait to find out more about Eaton and let more people know about his awesomeness. Tragically for you, if you are interested in those ebay listings for the photos you see in this post, too bad. I already snapped them up. I also bought a hat of his on etsy.

Hmm. I just got a vision of myself on an upcoming episode of hoarders. My apartment will be filled to the gills with old Nordstrom ads, packages of vintage John Doyle Bishop hosiery, and Bon Marche shopping bags, and the therapist will pull something out of the rubble and say "Now, do you really need this photograph of a man and two poodles? Is he even related to you? I'm going to throw this away," and I'll be like "Noooo! I'm saving it for HISTORY."

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Calm down and put it in a bag

This week, as I expectantly searched through a photo album for insect carcasses, it occurred to me that you couldn't really be a good museum collections person if you had a crippling fear of bugs.

Artifact collections shouldn't have bugs or vermin of any kind, but part of the process of keeping that way requires an obsessive interest in bugs and evidence of bugs. We put down sticky traps, check exhibit cases for frass (bug poop), and if we actually find a bug our first instinct is to put it in a bag. I once looked down to see a small bug crawling on my hand, and my response was to walk calmly over to the collections manager's desk, show her, and ask for an insect bag. Once bagged, we looked through her chart of harmful artifact-eating insects and tried to identify it.

Bugs are also a big reason I've been doing so much vacuuming. As a precaution, we've decided every textile-based object coming off exhibit will get vacuumed, deep frozen, and vacuumed again. The freezing kills insects, and the vacuuming removes dead bugs, eggs, and dust that might be tasty to insects in the future. I haven't found any bug evidence on objects for a while, and so sometimes I wonder if all this extra vacuuming is really necessary. But last week I found some bug bits on a fabric-covered photo album, and it was actually sort of exciting and validating. With relish I paged through the album looking for carcasses, and with each one I removed, I felt like I was creating order in a chaotic world. I may not be able to fix global poverty, but I can fix this.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Couture For Sure

Last week I led a walking tour about the history of fashion and retail in downtown Seattle. I spent a lot of it babbling about department stores and John Doyle Bishop, but the highlight of the tour was a visit to Luly Yang, Seattle's own couture house.

"Couture" is a word that gets thrown around a lot today and is usually used improperly. In fact, in my grad school class on fashion myths, my friend Ariele did her whole paper on the subject. Titled "Haute Couture or Not Couture" she explored the real meaning of the term and tried to figure out when it all went wrong (fyi: should you ever have to walk past a Juicy Couture store the proper response is to shudder and avert your eyes).

So when I first heard about Luly Yang I was a little skeptical. Couture? In Seattle? Sure, sure, Luly Yang designs beautiful dresses, but that on its own, doesn't make something couture. In addition to innovative design and high quality technique and materials, couture needs to be custom made for the wearer in an atelier--not churned out of a factory in standard sizes.

During the tour we met an assistant designer who showed us the "couture room." She explained how the garments on display were runway samples that served as inspiration, but that she worked with clients to design something unique. Some come in just for special occasion gowns, but some have their entire wardrobes done--including swimsuits and casual wear. Couture houses of old would do this as well: I remember hearing a story about Valentina making gardening aprons.

At the end of the tour we went down to the sewing room. I can't emphasize enough what a big deal it is that Luly Yang actually has a sewing room on site. As our tour guides talked, a master seamstress was sewing dress pieces together for a fitting that was to take place the next day. She flitted back and forth between a machine (machine sewing is not a couture deal breaker) and a padded dress form. This was actually the part that got me the most excited. In fashion history class I remember seeing a photograph from some couture house--I think it was Dior--where they kept padded torsos for each of their clients so they could always have the right shape to work on. Our tour guides confirmed that they do the same thing--certain dress forms are kept padded to exact shape of their return clients.

I should clarify that in order to be "haute couture" (rather than just "couture") you have to be part of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris. But other than that, I am giving my official fashion historian seal of approval to Luly Yang's use of the word "couture." When the tour was over I just wanted to float home on a cloud of tulle and figure out a way to have all of my clothes made by Luly. (The first step would be to make some more money, so I should probably get going with my plans to create an "i can has cabbage" Amish meme empire.)

Did I mention that Luly Yang has been in business just ten years? Which means that while the historic couture houses in Paris are seeing a shrinking number of clients, Seattle is home to a successful new couture house. So go ahead. Tell me that story again about Seattle style only being about flannel and rain gear.

Wait. Revision to earlier plan: when I have the money to buy something from Luly, my first request will be to have her make me a plaid flannel shirt with the "Luly Yang Couture" label inside. I will then be the owner of the coolest, most ironic clothing item in this history of Seattle fashion.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Lonely Life

Yesterday my roommate left for a one month teacher training program in Chicago, leaving me with a chance to experience living alone. I've joked to two people already that I'll probably start walking around in the apartment without pants. I was wearing a skirt when I came home from work yesterday and this morning I put on a dress, so so far, so good.