Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Nightmare on Lake Union

It's a special Halloween blog post! 

Two Terrifying Tales
of work life at
The South Lake Union Armory

1. I'm going to kill this tall, blond bitch

One of the larger artifacts going on display at the new museum is a life-size mannequin of a famous Japanese court lady, which was a gift to Seattle from the city of Kyoto. Well, larger is a relative term because we also have an airplane and a few vehicles on display, but she is certainly bigger than a can of salmon or a glue pot. This week we had to take her out of her crate and lift her onto her mount, which required several steps and three people to help.

She is made to look very realistic: glass eyes, eyelashes, real hair, and teeth visible through parted lips.  One of the mount makers said they thought she was creepy, but I thought she wasn't so bad as far as fake people go. But after a while we were all joking around and making fun of her and how much trouble she was giving us with the mount.

When we lifted her for the last time I felt a tug at my neck and looked down to see my necklace caught in her fingers. No, not caught. The chain was being perfectly held in her porcelain hands exactly as if she had grabbed me. "She's got my necklace!" I yelped. The mount makers looked up and stared wide-eyed as I tried to carefully wrestle the chain from between her fingers.

For the rest of the day the head mount maker was eager to tell everyone the story. "Did you hear that the Geisha tried to choke Clara?"

2. Water

At about 10am on Wednesday, the facility manager at the Armory strode into the gallery where we were installing and informed us that the city had shut off our water for about two hours due to some construction on the street outside. Not they were about to shut off our water, they had. That meant no bathrooms for two hours effective immediately. As soon as he said it, you could sense everyone in the room doing a quick mental bladder assessment. Full? Empty? Suddenly full now that I'm thinking about it?

"Well, there are Port-o-Potties in the park outside." Those things? The ones that spread a stink radius five feet deep and haven't been cleaned since Spring? I'd rather we were next door to the Bates Motel. You know they have running water.

The day dragged on. Everyone was grumpy and dehydrated, too afraid to drink anything lest the need become worse. Four hours later, still no water. At 3:00 I demanded an update. "Yeah, so it turns out they turned off the wrong pipe and they aren't sure when it will be back on but probably by morning." This was insanity.

I heard a rumor that our neighbors at the Center for Wooden Boats were hauling lake water out in a bucket and using that to flush the toilets. So I walked over there to ask.

"Hi! I'm from MOHAI! Are your toilets working?"
"Nope. No water."
"Um...I heard something about a bucket?"
"Oh, yeah sure. It's outside."

When I returned home that evening I was dizzy with excitement to be back in civilization. But was it really over? Or would I be forever haunted by the horrors I had endured that day?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Vanity, Part II

Tragically, this is my flirty "How YOU doin'" face
So last week I became one of those people who posts pictures of what they are wearing for other people to comment on (praise only, please) and was roundly smacked down when the event I was dressing for was cancelled. This week I got another, much-needed dose of humility.

On Sunday I felt an irritation in my eye which I couldn't seem to wash out with either contact solution or tears of agony. It happened right when I was about to leave to hang out with a friend, and I had to cancel and give the lamest, most made-up sounding excuse of "something got in my eye and it hurts real bad."

Putting my contacts in actually made it feel better, so I just carried on and assumed it would work itself out. On Monday it was still hurting, and my parents urged me to go to a doctor. It seemed weird to go to a doctor for something so whiny and small, and I still had to fill out all the same paperwork and answer all the usual doctor questions, most of which were about ladybusiness. I know there is good reason for it, but when the nurse asked when my last period was and I just wanted to be like I'M PRETTY SURE MY EYE ISN'T PREGNANT.

Luckily I didn't scream that at anyone, and ten minutes later the doctor extracted a small, malicious-looking dark speck from my left eyelid. My eye felt way better, but the doctor suggested I take a break from my contacts for a couple of days and switch to glasses.

I was totally fine with this plan since I had recently updated my prescription and gotten a nice, cool new pair of glasses. My old ones were cloudy in one eye (don't ask) and the prescription was terrible, so I only wore them while getting in and out of bed. The new ones are thick-rimmed and distinctive, and I hesitated to start wearing them because the look would be a dramatic change. I needed to pick the right time, I thought, because I would get questions and comments about them all day.

So I wore them to work on Tuesday...and not one single person commented. Not one. The next day I was at a different site with a different group of people so I tried the experiment again. I made it half the day with no comments, and eventually the grand total squeaked up to two. People who see me all the time didn't say a word. I was sure it was going to be some kind of earthshaking change and I would have to calm everyone down and assure them that life would somehow go on as before. Instead, this only child was once again reminded that she is not the center of the universe, and not that many people are paying attention to what is going on in my face region.

So who were the two prize winners of the "something is different about Clara" sweepstakes? One was my friend Curt, who I am friends with outside of work and sees me all the time. The other was the museum's attractive Austrian janitor Karl, who noticed right away and cooed "they look good on you" in his flirty, germanic accent. Oh Karl, stop.

Oops. What was that about humility?

Confusing Project Runway-Based Emotions

For the two of you who follow this blog and watch Project Runway, I feel compelled to comment on the finale. 


A few weeks ago I declared Dmitry's fashion week collection to be ugly, despite my love for his vampire good looks and bitchy commentary.

Well...that ugly collection just won him the season. I was thrilled to see him win, but I stand behind my previous comments. The collection was well made but it was overworked, weirdly styled, and minimally innovative. Many are saying that hippie Fabio deserved the win, and I'm fine with that, but his didn't excite me at all either. I wish I could take credit for this quip, but I read somewhere that Fabio's clothes looked like they were for a woman who lives in New Mexico and buys a lot of Georgia O'Keefe prints. Stacked up against the best collections of years past, there wasn't anyone this year who deserved the win.

The bottom line is that the designers were given a mere five weeks to put their collections together. In seasons past they have had four or five months. OF COURSE the entire output was lackluster.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Keeping It Casual

This week I faced a serious clothing conundrum: What to wear to a meeting at the corporate offices of Tommy Bahama? I wanted to look professional, but I didn't want to show up in my favorite "I mean business" dress and discover that the person I was meeting with was wearing a sarong and flip-flops. I found the issue so comical and intriguing that I posted it to facebook and even uploaded one of those narcissistic pictures in the mirror of what I eventually chose.

To my credit: No duckface
The bottom line though was that I was really, really excited about this meeting...which made it all the more embarrassing when five minutes before I was about to leave I got an email saying they would have to reschedule. As I banged my head against my desk, one of the the people I work with said, "Well, I guess they have a casual approach to keeping appointments, too." Ooooh! BURN ON TOMMY BAHAMA.

So what was I so stoked about? Since when is "resort casual" my aesthetic? Well, it isn't. But I've only recently found out that Tommy Bahama is a Seattle-founded and Seattle-based company, which means it is suddenly fascinating to me. I mean, it seems strange that Tommy Bahama is from Seattle, right? Our region isn't exactly known for its warm, beachy climate. In fact, there is only one Tommy Bahama store in the city of Seattle, and it opened around a decade after the company was founded. So what gives?

Well, there is a much bigger story about the jeans and casual wear industry in Seattle. It started with Brittania in the 1970s and then Generra and Union Bay in the 1980s. Brittania is credited with being one of the first to market faded denim in the US, and all three were innovators in teen wear.   The companies took advantage of the port and Seattle's proximity to Asia, and they were some of the first to have designers stateside and production overseas. That particular innovation would eventually be devastating to the US garment industry, so while it is difficult to applaud, it is also impossible to deny that it was an important and influential business model. These days, almost all of our clothes are made overseas.

But let's talk about something more cheerful. Remember Hypercolor?

Original Hypercolor clothing was invented and made by Seattle-based Generra. And you thought our only contribution to 90s fashion was grunge!

Brittania and Generra have since fizzled, but Union Bay is still kicking and has its headquarters in a building on Lake Union. There are also several companies that have been started by former employees of the big three. Tommy Bahama has three cofounders: two of which had started at Brittania and then were major players at Generra, and one who was the former vice-president of Union Bay.

So it turns out Seattle wasn't a risky, off-the-map choice for Tommy Bahama, it was was an obvious and easy one. Seattle actually ranks fourth in the nation as a center for fashion design and apparel talent according this fascinating article.

The jeans industry and the companies that grew out of it is something I'd like to know more about, and I'd like to see that story represented in the MOHAI collection. Of course, recently-made casual wear is never what someone thinks to donate to a history museum. I think most people would be shocked to hear that I roll my eyes when I get an offer for yet ANOTHER 1880s wedding dress, but would jump for joy over some 1980s Seattle branded jeans.

Scratch that. Not jump for joy. I would do one of those dance moves from the Hypercolor commercial. Running man with extra side-order of flailing arms.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Freude Schöner Götterfunken!

This week I celebrated the anniversary of my return to Seattle. One year ago I arrived by train from New York and started my fantastic job at MOHAI. I still miss many things about NYC, but overall being in Seattle has been wonderful and I still feel blessed to be here doing what I'm doing.

In recognition of my happy, celebratory feelings, it was appropriate that on Friday I got to sing Beethoven's 9th symphony at Benaroya Hall. This summer I auditioned for the Seattle Choral Company, but had second thoughts about joining when the audition alone was way more intense than I expected (to give you an idea: I scored a zero on the French portion of the language exam). Instead, I decided to join their "festival chorus," a group of singers they call upon occasionally for larger choral works that require a bigger sound. This year, they needed extras for the choral finale of Beethoven's 9th. I've never sung it, but my German is ausgezeichnet compared to my French, and I already knew the basic tune. You probably do too.

I've listened to the full 9th Symphony before, but that was pretty much how I pictured it. Lots of fun German words, a big cheering crowd, and John Lennon on the harmonica. Well, I was in for a shock. Sure, the chorus gets several refrains of the "Ode to Joy" but there are a lot of other parts too, and for most of it the sopranos are at the top of our range, trying to belt out text and high As at the same time. Flip to about the 8:30 mark in the video below and you'll have an idea of how ridiculous it gets by the end:

The orchestra is sawing away as the choir tries to hastily screech out words like "umschlungen," "Sternenzelt," and "Götterfunken." I heard choir members joke that Beethoven must have hated singers, and after a few grueling rehearsals I was pretty convinced that his genius was best enjoyed as an audience member.

On the night of the concert, our director told us to "leave nothing on the table." The choral part comprises about 15 minutes of singing and it's over. Our rehearsals lasted for 2 hours and thirty minutes each, and so learning the piece felt like a marathon. But in performance it was more like a sprint, and so he was telling us to push toward the end and have nothing left after the last measure. It was stirring advice, and in performance the piece finally felt like the joyful thrill it was intended to be.

So happy anniversary Seattle! You fill me with Freude.