Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Major Life Milestone

Once again I let a week lapse without blogging. Sorry about that. For those yearning for more fashion history kernels of knowledge from yours truly, I should also suggest the MOHAI tumblr page. I've been making an effort to to send more content to the social media manager and most of it has been ending up there. Check it out:

My two favorite things up right now are a pair of shoes we found during the inventory and a picture comparison I made between a dress in the collection and a famous red carpet look.

First up: Who Wore It Best?

On the left is a late 1880s bustle dress that was recently dressed on a mannequin and put on display. On the right is a very pregnant Kimberly Kardashian at the Met Costume Gala last year, in a dress that famously made her look like a couch. I am no big fan of Miss K's, but I did feel sorry for her as a woman in the public eye during her pregnancy. You know how they say some women "glow" and become even more beautiful while pregnant? Well that was not the case for Kim. She looked sweaty and exhausted and gigantic and the tabloids were vicious about it. But while I would like to give her the sympathy vote in this case, the mannequin is clearly winning this round.

Up next: "Barbie" heels we found in the collection

On tumblr I wrote an interesting tidbit about the donor, but what really made me chuckle about these shoes was the way they were described in the database. When I pulled up the record they were described as "light red." Oh honey no. The word you are looking for is PINK. Those are, in fact, the pinkest shoes that ever pinked.

And speaking of couches and the color pink, roommate Olivia and I just went through a major life milestone. MAJOR. The kind of life step that puts weddings and pregnancies to shame. 


You probably assume that Olivia and I live in a glamorous, magazine-worthy domicile, but actually neither of us are very interior decoration oriented. Our style is still a little college-y. Pictures taped to the mirrors and free furniture we cobbled together from various sources. 

One day we woke up and realized, despite being made of a fabulous pink nylon, our couch was actually saggy and old. 

So we decided to be grown ups and buy a couch. But then the weight of that decision pressed on us and for months we couldn't be decisive enough to go through with it. How much should we spend? What kind of fabric? What shape? Then, last Saturday we were going out for dinner and walked past a furniture store that was having a liquidation sale. Thirty minutes later we were high-fiving our purchase over whiskey gingers and a plate of fried pickles.


Wait. It seems like something is missing. 

Much better. One recent critique I got is that this blog doesn't feature enough Olivia. For those Olivia fans out there, I'm giving her her own tag so you can jump right to any posts about her and our single girl adventures. 

We broke the couch in by watching the last three episodes of Pride and Prejudice while eating cottage cheese and cold pizza. Obviously it was fantastic. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Seattle Clothing Industry, Explained By Cartoons

This week I was featured in a small section of the Seattle Times because I have a cool job. The online version is here, and it will be in print in the Sunday paper tomorrow. As I enjoy my last hours of anonymity (I assume that the "classified jobs section" is another term for "front page") I am bracing myself for all kinds of questions about how I got to be so amazing and cool and what the secret is of my success.

Me pictured with some adoring fans which I later discovered were inanimate objects
(Photo credit: MOHAI / Kathleen Knies)

Coincidentally, the Seattle Times actually IS one of the secrets of my success. Ever since I discovered that their paper was digitized from 1900 to the present and completely word searchable, my life has never been the same. The resource is free through the Seattle Public Library (with a library card), or for a fee through their website. In grad school I didn't know about the free access and so paid $20 for the all-you-can-download-for-24-hours option and spent the entire time pulling up every single reference to JDB. Nowadays I use it constantly for big research projects and quick lookups of donor names or labels I find in the collection.

This week I came across a delightful series about the fashion industry in Seattle which ran for five days in 1956. Each article was accompanied by a humorous cartoon illustrating some aspect of the story.

The second entry was titled "Tradition of Quality Established by Seattle Garment Makers." The author explains that while "today" (1956) you can have nearly any kind of clothing made in Seattle, the industry was founded on--and continues to specialize in--durable, functional clothing. "Down-filled equipment for Alaska, slicker wear for the commercial fishing industry and tough work clothes and boots for loggers." The point is illustrated by this cartoon: 

Seattle Times, Feb 6, 1956

Later, the topic turns to the details of the industry in Seattle. The article explains that one of the persistent problems is the small labor pool, but business owners stay here because they love the area. One brand exec spends too much time skiing at Steven's Pass to think of moving. Another admits she doesn't want to expand her business because she is an avid fisherwoman and wants time for leisure activities. And thus we get this wonderful cartoon:

Seattle Times, Feb 8, 1956

I love this. The New York/LA industry represented by an uptight guy in a suit, while Seattle is represented by a sport-loving woman. 

And then the final installment is titled "Casual Style Marks Seattle-Designed Clothing," and explains pretty much that. Seattle style is defined as part of the West Coast leaning toward casual looks, and designers emphasize how Seattle women demand practicality as well as fashion. As one designer puts it, "Women here want a skirt that will get them from a muddy driveway to the city and back for a weiner roast." A concept which the cartoonist depicts like this:

Seattle Times, Feb 9, 1956

Once again, wonderful. The treasures to be found in a digitized newspaper are ENDLESS. Just another reminder of how important it is to preserve historical resources and make them available to the public. Museums, libraries, and archives are important cultural institutions from which we all benefit. 

Couldn't resist.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Opera Nerd Time

You know how last week I wrote about how successfully installed mannequins can induce feelings of euphoria? Well this week I got a huge dose of that.

What you are looking at is three costumes from Seattle Opera's famed production of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. It is hard to take a picture without all kinds of reflection on that case, so in case you can't tell, the costumes all look devastatingly stunning. It is a good thing that after the install I had to head back to the MOHAI Resource Center, because if I had been allowed to stay the museum, I probably would have just sat in front of this case and stared at it for the rest of the day. 

The costumes are on loan from the opera and will be up for about nine months, but we installed them this week to coincide with a big Seattle Opera at MOHAI day. I'm not quite an opera scholar (there are some huge gaps in my knowledge) but I could perhaps be described as a Seattle Opera fangirl. 

This is me in my vintage 1995 Götterdämmerung T-shirt, holding Greer Grimsley's Woton spear. 

He is basically the Tom HIddleston of opera

As a kids craft, the opera brought supplies to make winged Valkyrie helmets. 

I think I might keep this hat and put it on whenever I need a dose of powerful warrior goddess confidence. Situations like:
-Trying on swimsuits
-Going to an unfamiliar location on public transportation
-Making an online dating profile
-Searching for my lost copy of Bossypants

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Accessories Change Everything

Right now I'm knee-deep in mannequin dressing, which can be one of the most anxiety-inducing parts of my job but also one of the most satisfying. Getting the shape of a garment just right can take a maddening amount of fussy adjustments (the whenyouworkatamusuem blog nailed it with this post). But when you do get it right, the feeling can be euphoric.

I went through the full emotional roller-coaster this week with the 1950s mannequin. For various reasons, she is one of two that can't be pre-dressed and has to be dealt with on-site. I picked one of my favorite suits in the collection-- grey wool with a tightly tailored shape and a beautiful drape of fabric in the back, sold at John Doyle Bishop's, of course. But as my volunteers and I tried to dress it we ran into two major issues.

For one, we just couldn't seem to get the fit right, and she just kept looking top-heavy and lumpy. Second, the suit is dark grey and the accessories I had on the mannequin are all black. Factor in our mannequins' perpetual case of bitchy resting face, and the result was a very sad and dour looking woman.

The label behind her is all about the change in women's roles after WWII, with the headline "After The War Women Ditch Their Overalls…" and this outfit made it look like the end of the sentence was "…FOR WIDOWS WEEDS." 

The first day I worked on her I ran out of time and didn't have any extra accessories, so I had to leave her in distress for a couple of days. 

In the meantime I did a little vintage shopping and raided the fabrics and props in my mannequin supply stash. When the time came, it was clear the right choice was to channel fake Diana Vreeland in Funny Face and...


After a little padding adjustment and some strategically placed accessories, this was the much-improved result: 

So much better, right? I brought LIGHT and LIFE back into this inanimate woman's life!! I hope John would approve…although he probably would have suggested an actual pink blouse rather than a cut-up pillowcase stuffed around the neck.