Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Age of Discovery

There is a great article on the New York Times this week about the thrill and challenge of museum storage facilities. Click here: "Golden Age of Discovery…Down in the Basements" 

For me, right now, it does feel like a golden age of discovery, because I am researching stories that no one has ever researched before, and finding things in the MOHAI collection that have been neglected for decades. At the moment, most of it is centered around an upcoming lecture I'm giving titled From Paris to Seattle: The Fashion Careers of Helen Igoe and Madame Thiry.

After the success of the John Doyle Bishop lecture last year, Public Programs was happy to let Fashion Nerd Afternoon with Clara become a yearly offering (official called the Annual MOHAI Fashion Lecture). I was super excited about this until I realized that when I picked JDB as a subject, all the research was already in the can. I had done my master's thesis on him and so it just required putting together a few slides and condensing the story into 40 minutes. But this year, and every year after, I will need to hit the research shelves and learn new things. Which is difficult, time consuming, and awesome.

As far as I know, no one has researched either of these women before, and neither of them have archives or personal papers that I can access. So I'm grasping at every little newspaper mention, magazine advertisement, and city directory listing I can find. On the one hand, it means that I'm weaving a tale out of pretty scant information, but on the other it makes every little morsel that much more exciting. For example, just by looking at address listings in the city directories, I was able to piece together the story of a failed marriage and exactly when the gentleman in question was booted out.


And as luck would have it, I found a fantastic Madame Thiry dress this week during inventory. It was crammed into a tiny box with another 1920s dress, yet was in remarkably good shape. It was so chic and modern that I was almost fooled into thinking it was from the 1960s. Which is cool because her son ended up being a raging architectural modernist whose heyday was the 1950s and 60s. Coincidence? I'd like to think not. 

As I've been doing this research and looking at dresses in the collection, I'm also coming across lots of labels, names, and ads for Seattle stores and companies that I've never heard of. It was hard not to get immediately sidetracked, but it is thrilling to know that there are so many stories still waiting to be uncovered. 

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