Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Fashion and Independent Women

Next Saturday I will be reprising my lecture about Helen Igoe and Madame Thiry. If you missed it the first time, get your tickets now!!!

Revisiting this lecture has made me think about the interesting ways that fashion has opened the door for for women to forge their own path in the world. In eras where ladies of a certain social class were expected to marry and not to work outside the home, there were very few socially acceptable ways to be a businesswoman who called the shots. One of the ways was to do it in a "woman's interest" industry like fashion. I wish I could say that this thinking is completely behind us, but we know that married women who work still get asked crap questions about how they can "juggle it all" and there are still lots of jobs and roles that society still expects will be held by a man.

Anyway, if we go back to thinking of the positive, I like the way that fashion has historically offered an opportunity for women to be business owners and bosses. And because there were so many expectations about gender roles and what it meant to be a "good wife," not being married seemed to be an advantage. Nowadays it is much easier to build an healthy and mutually supportive marriage, but back then being unmarried/widowed/divorced seemed to be helpful in getting a patriarchal society to recognize a woman's accomplishments as her own.


Helen Igoe grew up in Minnesota, and left home as an unmarried, old maid at 35. She came to Seattle and started working in a department store, which eventually sent her to Europe as a buyer. In 1910 she opened her own store: the Helen Igoe Shop for Women. In 1912 she married a man from St. Louis. Rather than return "home" to the midwest to be a good little wife, he had to move to Seattle to be with her. While socially she was sometimes referred to as Mrs. George Stalker, her maiden name tied her to her business and she still continued to be professionally known as Helen Igoe. After only five years of marriage his name disappears from the city directories and a quiet divorce request is printed in the papers a year later. She continued to be known as Helen Igoe for the rest of her life. Well, that and an "Innovator," "Fashion Dictator" and "Seattle's Hattie Carnegie."

Louise Schwaebele became Madame Thiry when she married in 1903. She and her husband were from France, but after they married they moved to Nome, Alaska to see about this gold rush everyone was talking about. Frontier life maybe wasn't her favorite thing, so she travelled back to Paris with her young son and got the idea of bringing fashionable things back to sell in Nome and Seattle (at that time you basically couldn't get to Alaska without going through Seattle). That was going well as a little side business, but then her husband returned to France to fight in WWI and he didn't return. Devastated and on her own, expanding her business was one of the few options available to support herself and her son. She moved permanently to Seattle and had a successful shop in the 1920s which sold original designs and imported fashion from France.

There is also, of course, Josephine Nordhoff. She and her husband Edward founded The Bon Marché department store in Seattle. They met when they were both working at a store in Chicago, and married when he was 29 and she was just 16. Two years later they moved to Seattle and started The Bon Marché  They both worked hard to make the store a success, but here is a case where I think that if Josephine had died young, gender bias would have given Edward full credit for "founding" the store. As it happened, Edward died in 1899 and Josephine was the one who continued for the next twenty years. She did remarry and have help from both her new husband and a brother-in-law, but she was recognized as one of the founders of the store and one of the keys to its massive success. On the day of her funeral in 1920, all the downtown retailers closed to honor her.

Recently, I've uncovered yet another example, and this one is juicy. Since it is probably going to make its way into my fashion lecture next year I want to not give away everything, so for now I will just call her Ms. X. She was married at 17 and she and her husband came to Seattle right around the turn of the 20th century. In her 30s she gets a job as the head of ladies ready-to-wear at a large Seattle store. After a few years she files for divorce from her husband claiming non-support. The newspaper slyly remarks that "Mrs. X is a department manager for [store]. The directory gives no occupation for Mr. X."

Two years later, her husband attempts to take her employer to court for causing his wife to "leave her home" which "alienated her affections." He insinuates there may have been a romantic connection between his wife and her boss. The case is thrown out because it is discovered that the husband's lawyer hired a blackmailer to tamper with witnesses. I wasn't able to find confirmation that the divorce went through (it was really hard to get one back in the day) but the husband certainly seems to disappear from the picture. The year after the trial Ms. X opens her own shop.

One thing you should know about most fashion historians is that you can really push our buttons if you start dismissing what we do as "just frivolous fluff" that is "only interesting to women." Basically, we'll be like:

Look, I'm not saying everyone needs to be interested in fashion. If you feel awesome and confident in something that would make a Vogue editor gag SO WHAT. You be you. But when you say dismissively that fashion is "only interesting to women" it starts sounding a awful lot like "things that are interesting to women are automatically less important." And that is intolerable BS. For the women above, fashion was more than "frivolous fluff." It was independence, financial stability, a creative outlet, an opportunity build a business on their own terms, and a way to step outside the limiting roles that society had dictated.  It was life.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Portlandia: The Full Story

As explained earlier by a gif about pickling, I was in Portland last weekend. I was there to attend the Costume Society of America Western Region symposium. It was me and 37 other West Coast ladies who have made a career (or at least a serious hobby) out of being really into clothes.

The symposium theme was all about street style and subcultural influences on contemporary fashion and so I put together a presentation about GLBTQ clothing as represented in the MOHAI collection.  I was actually kind of cheating because while "queer style" was one of the suggested topics, I used the opportunity to talk about John Doyle Bishop and John Eaton who were decidedly not "subcultural" or "outsider" when it came to their fashion sense. (But, you know, that is sort of the point--there is no single GLBTQ story or style). I also I talked about new things we acquired when we did a "collecting initiative" during the run of the Revealing Queer exhibition, major gaps in the collection (most of what we have is from white, relatively affluent gay men-- so LOTS of people still unrepresented), and some basic cautions about stereotyping and tokenizing people. It was well received, although it felt weird when a couple people emphatically told me that I was SO BRAVE to tackle the subject. Um...I guess? Very kind of them to say, but in the grand scheme of brave acts committed in the name of inclusion, this probably isn't one for the history books.

Anyway, the true act of bravery that weekend was booking a room in the most hipstery of hipster hotels in downtown Portland. The thing about cilantro conditioner was not a joke. My room came with "original art" and a "curated mini-bar." Breakfast literally included an assortment of pickled things, along with artisanal cheeses, cured meets, and local honey.

My actual room was pretty minimal on the "original art" front. Or was the whole thing art? Is my whole life a performance?!?!? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?!?!?!

On Sunday I went on an excursion to the Maryhill Museum which is weird/amazing place on the Washington side of the Columbia river, about two hours outside of Portland. Why weird/amazing? Well, to start with it is in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by some serious scenery. Here are two views I took from the balcony of the museum cafe:



Inside is an odd but interesting mix of art and history objects: including a collection of Rodins, oil paintings, Native American artifacts from across the US, a collection of chess sets, and a whole bunch of stuff that belonged to Marie, Queen of Romania. But for us fashion geeks, going to Maryhill is all about making a pilgrimage to the Théâtre de la Mode

Paying my respects to this sacred couture space

(If you don't know the Théâtre de la Mode story, google it or click the link above. I can't do full justice to it here)

I distinctly remember visiting Maryhill on a family trip when I was a kid. I was engrossed by the fashion dolls and bought some postcards which I poured over for the next few weeks. Clearly, it was an early hint as to where my life interests were headed. 

This time around I felt inspired to take selfies of me and the dolls.

Attempting to get a picture with the frothy aqua Lucian Lelong dress
(likely designed by Christian Dior)


I can only conclude, once again, that the Pacific Northwest is a remarkable, wonderful place. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014


I'm not going to do a full post this week because I'm busy spending the weekend in Portland!

And by "busy" I mean that I'm hanging out in my boutique hotel, resisting the urge to eat anything from the "curated" mini-bar, and wondering whose bike I've got to fix to get more cilantro conditioner around here. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Found in Collections

On Friday I resolved FOUR FICs!!!!

Oh wait, not everyone knows what that means.

FIC stands for "Found in Collections" and it is yet another concept that can be baffling to non-museum folks. I mean, as a phrase it makes sense: an item is an FIC when it is discovered among the collections items, but has no identifying marks and we haven't been able to connect it with a known accession.

The baffling part is that this term exists. How can things just show up in the collection without anyone knowing where they came from? And that it happens enough to have a term for it? Are the artifacts breeding?!?!

No, collections work is not that sexy. Like most museum problems, the root of the issue is staff time. MOHAI went through long stretches when there was only one paid collections person, and frequently they were also expected to work on exhibits and programming and probably cleaning toilets too. Correctly processing a collection and numbering everything takes time. Maybe you skip labeling that one piece of lace because you think it will be obvious it goes with this other piece, but then when it becomes jumbled up in a giant box of lace it becomes much less obvious. Or maybe new accessions just pile up and you set them aside to work on "later" but then it sits there long enough that no one remembers what that pile was all about.

Then there is also the fact that we deal with all kinds of man-made objects from 1850 to the present, and it is shockingly easy to get non-artifacts mixed in with actual artifacts. When we moved into our new storage space, someone was using a mallet to adjust the shelf heights. They walked away for a moment and set the mallet down on shelf across the aisle. When they came back, they realized they had set the mallet down ON A SHELF OF MALLETS. They had to go through item by item, checking for numbers to make sure they picked up the right one. If they had forgotten, left it there and just found another mallet, that one would be an FIC. It is also why some of our office furniture looks like this:

So nowadays we do our best to avoid creating new FICs, but as we do inventory and delve into unexplored corners of the collection, we still turn up mysterious stuff.  Every item we come across has to be accounted for, so if something does't have a clear number we give it a temporary FIC number just so we can track it.

The scary thing about FICs is that you can't really get rid of them unless you figure out what their deal is. If you just tossed everything you couldn't identify you would run into real trouble. That bit of lace that had no number and that you thought you could safely discard could turn out to be made by some important pioneer grandmother and it was actually on loan and the family wants it back and now YOU have to tell them that it got used for a kids craft activity and was thrown out after it was covered in macaroni.

So we hang on to FICs, hoping that one day the can be "resolved" meaning that they connect with some known accession, or you find information clarifying that yes that is a prop or reproduction or something someone accidentally set down in the wrong place.

ANYWAY so on Friday I was searching through the database for something else and came across a record for a hat with an unknown location that sounded SUSPICIOUSLY like a hat I had just put away. The one I had just boxed had an FIC number. So I pulled the hat and it matched the description exactly.

Artifacts reuniting with numbers (Dramatization)

I was ELATED. But then I thought to look up the other items in that accession. There were three other hats that came in with it and all had unknown locations. And what do you know, their descriptions matched three FICs hats that had been found at the same time as the first hat. I was like...

Ok, actually my victory dance looked more like...