Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Unofficial AAM Report

The American Alliance of Museums conference was in town this week. Almost all the MOHAI staff went, and in a couple weeks we are going to get together for a group report/download/discussion about what we learned. Here are all the things that probably won't come up in my official work report.

For those of you outside the museum world, all you need to know is that AAM is basically comprised of conference sessions by day and on-site museum parties by night.

The opening party was at EMP (a music and pop culture museum in Seattle), and featured free wine and an all-you-can-eat dessert bar.

Most of the sessions I went to were really interesting and inspiring.  Only one turned out to be disappointing and useless but I made up for it by zoning out and brainstorming some unrelated ideas. At one point I got this idea of making a Seattle fashion ABC book, and I tried to mentally match a name or company with every letter of the alphabet.

Would you file me under J, D, or B?

Of course it was quite puzzle, because some letters had too many options (would F be Filson or Frederick & Nelson??) and when you get to X you basically either have to come up with a reason why Xylophones are important to Seattle fashion or you just straight-up cheat  and say something like "X is for the Seattle Fur eXchange!"

Most of the good sessions I went to focused on how to improve visitor experiences and think outside the box on how to use objects and exhibits. The extroverted side of me was all YES PEOPLE I LOVE PEOPLE SO EXCITED TO ENGAGE WITH PEOPLE AND CHANGE LIVES!!

But then, on the last day, I woke up with the realization that I had caught a cold. I dragged myself to work for an "onsite insight" tour my department was doing of our collections space, and discovered that one of my coworkers was also sick. We concluded that collections people are not conditioned to interact with so many other humans at once.

So I stayed home for the next two days and worked on my ABC book.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hanger House of Horrors

Starting today the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference is in town. Woo hoo! Can't wait to start re-imagining visitor encounters with objects and debate the risks and rewards of animating the collection through innovative visitor experiences!!!

(YES the museum field does have its own version of corporate jargon. Hopefully I'll be like:

And less:


On Monday night MOHAI is throwing a party and a few departments are going to be stationed at tables, showing off some of our work and talking about what we do. Betsy and I volunteered to do the collections one. She is going to set up a little pest identification station (can YOU tell the difference between a carpet beetle and a millipede?) and I'm going to have an assortment of padded hangers to talk about. I also thought it would be fun to print out pictures of the WORST hangers that I've discovered while going through the collection.

So for your enjoyment I present the MOHAI Hanger House of Horrors

For starters, there are lots of wire hangers in the collection and they are still deeply upsetting.
Here we have the added bonus of terrible acidic paper cover from the dry cleaner and a skirt attached with a safety pin.

Then there are the weird old "padded" hangers 
What could possibly be better for a historic garment than a wood hanger covered in a thin layer of purple acrylic yarn? Make sure to randomly tie a bow on one side for no reason at all!!

Then there are hangers with those terrible rubberized grip things. Here someone thought enough to wrap acid-free tissue around the hanger:
But seeing what the hanger started doing to the paper just makes me shudder to think about what that hanger would have done to the garment if someone hadn't thought to wrap the hanger. WHY WAS THIS TOXIC THING ALLOWED TO EVEN BE IN THE SAME ROOM WITH THE COLLECTION???

Things get really interesting though during bad idea craft time.

This is a hanger padded with acid-free tissue (not terrible) and then secured with large swaths of masking tape (ooooh swing and a miss). 

When fully unwrapped and dissected, this turned out to be a metal hanger wrapped in a black T-shirt, wrapped in twine. Not the worst thing you could do, but….why??

Here is another creative padded approach:
This is a hanger wrapped in bubble wrap, covered with an unwashed scrap of muslin which has been secured with straight pins. 

And finally, the one that legitimately makes my blood boil, this "helpful" attempt to put notches in a straight hanger:

If you can't tell, that is one very rough, sharp edge on which to hang something. Most of the above have been one-offs, but I have found lots of these. And what are they used for? Why, to hang sleeveless silk dresses of course! What a brilliant idea to rest a soft, fragile silk strap against a sharp edge!! Even better if it is a heavy dress! What could possibly go wrong??? Last week I had 1920s dress with chiffon straps (yes chiffon) basically fall apart in my hands as I tried to move it off one of these hangers. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Jean, John, and Julianna

I know that the dresses at the Met Costume Gala stole the show this week, but for me there was only one red carpet look worth talking about.

This is Julianna Margulies at the White House Correspondence Dinner. I was scrolling through pictures on one of my favorite fashion websites when I saw this dress and stopped.  I know that dress.  The caption confirmed: Julianna Margulies in vintage Jean Dessès.

MOHAI has this dress!!!

I saw it a few months ago when one of my vacuuming volunteers worked on it.


Ours has a label saying that it was designed by Dessès but made by a New York company called Vanity. That means it was probably a licensed copy of the Dessès original. The record dates it to 1955.

But Clara, does it have a Seattle story?

Miss me?

DUH. The dress also has a label from JOHN DOYLE BISHOP.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Curse Words and Carpet

I have two unrelated stories to share this week. Deal with it. 

Pants and Shorts

On Wednesday I went to the main museum to help dress a small army of mannequins in soccer uniforms (file that under things that don't happen to costume curators at the Met). MOHAI was doing a Free First Thursday promotion with the Seattle Sounders, and the Sounders had gotten really excited and sent over a literal truckload of memorabilia to display. A few weeks ago I was asked about mannequins they could use for jerseys, but then it sounded like they were bringing their own so I sort of forgot about it. But then on Monday I found out that yes, they were providing eight mannequins of their own, but sending twelve outfits, so could they use four of ours? And if ours had legs that would be great because two uniforms include pants and shorts. 

WHAT? PANTS AND SHORTS?!?!?!?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Already I was dubious about just throwing some jerseys on random mannequins and hoping they didn't look saggy and terrible, but if there is one thing I've learned about dressing mannequins it is that men's pants are infuriatingly difficult. Suddenly the anatomy of male thighs and butt becomes the greatest mystery of the universe and you are caught in a battle between having the pants fall down, and sculpting a noticeably gigantic junk-in-the-trunk situation. So I practically screamed "PANTS AND SHORTS?!" when I found out. 

But sometimes there are advantages to working with things that don't qualify as high fashion. It was like "AUGH HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET THESE PANTS TO STAY UP oh hey elastic waistband. Done."

Later in the week I was working on a not easy mannequin with one of my longtime dresser helpers and was telling her the story. She laughed and said that coming out of my mouth "PANTS AND SHORTS" sounded like I was cursing. So I could start saying things like "PANTS AND SHORTS we have a lot of vacuuming to do" or "PANTS AND SHORTS that mannequin looks creepy."

Of Course He Did

This week I also had a very fun meeting at St. James Cathedral. I've been noticing that almost all of the Seattle fashion personalities I research (John Doyle Bishop, Helen Igoe, and Madame Thiry) were Catholics who attended St. James. In some cases they also donated things to the Cathedral, so there was some cool stuff to see. 

The BEST factoid I learned was about John Doyle Bishop. The Cathedral has gone through several renovations and sometime in the 1960s or 70s they were looking to put in new carpet. Apparently JDB offered to pay the full amount for the carpet, but with one stipulation: it had to be his favorite shade of green. 

My Money. My Rules.

And they were like "Great! Green it is!"

Of course he did. Of course John Doyle Bishop didn't go to some local parish church. You better believe John Doyle Bishop attended mass at the Cathedral, and made sure that space was done up in his colors. I mean, why spend your Sundays in a place that doesn't match your own fabulousness? 


The carpet was removed in the 1990s as part of yet another renovation, but apparently they still have pieces of it. And holy PANTS AND SHORTS am I going to borrow some of it if I ever do a JDB exhibit.