Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Miss Fisher's FIC Mysteries

Once again, I skipped a week blogging and feel I need to offer an excuse. But that assumes that all of you dear readers hang on my every word and eagerly check each week for a post, and are lost and devastated when one doesn't appear (since there is very little to read or watch on the internet, so when one blogger drops the ball, the entertainment void is felt by all).

Fortunately I have a really good excuse. I spent all of last weekend watching Netflix.

Last week Olivia and I decided to try a new show which looked like it might be good: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. It quickly became clear that this wasn't just a "good" show, it was 100% up our alley in every way. Sassy, independent female lead, period setting with amazing costumes, attractive men in suits, and an ensemble of characters that are continuously delightful.

Not the least of which are Communist-leaning cab drivers, Burt & Cec

I realize this is going to sound like hyperbole (especially since I know MULTIPLE people who became parents this week) but there is nothing in this life quite like the supreme joy of discovering a new piece of entertainment--be it book/movie/TV show/play/music--that you love so much that you can feel your life getting tangibly better because of it.

Phyrne Fisher is just the role model we need with St. Catherine's Day right around the corner. She is fearless, fabulous, and sharp. In a strange way, I feel like she guided me into all kinds of awesome things this week.

First of all, I spent some time trying to figure out which 1920s pieces from our collection will be on display next year during the run of American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. This "looking for pretty dresses" part of my job is unfairly awesome, but was made even better because I felt like I was riffling through Miss Fisher's wardrobe.

I mean, I feel like she may actually own this coat:

And at the end of the week, I saw some long-term detective work of my own finally come to fruition. Fortunately I am not researching murders (although could be persuaded if a handsome, suit-wearing detective was part of the deal) but FICs

If only I had this team to help with all those mystery socks

MOHAI has a collection of hats from Chicago milliner Benjamin Green-Field, or Bes-Ben as his brand was called. Our first record of them is a handwritten note from the early 90s saying that they had been dropped off anonymously "many years ago." They were "discovered" again in 2007 and given an FIC number. 

Bes-Ben hats are wacky and fun. Google the name and you'll see what I'm talking about. MOHAI's set includes one with painted chicken legs. 

Even though the Seattle connection was unknown, the hats were displayed a few times and in 2011 they were featured as a "Thursday Hidden Treasure" on the MOHAI blog. What followed was amazing affirmation of why it is important for museums to use the internet to make their collections more public. A few months after that post, I was contacted by a woman from Chicago who wanted to know more about our Bes-Ben hats. I had to reluctantly tell her that I didn't have any information about the donor. She got excited about the mystery, and since she was looking at the business ledgers and records as part of her research, offered to help me. Over the next few years, as she had time and I had time, we exchanged information about the hats. Using the chicken feet as a starting point (shockingly, it was not a top seller) she was able to connect nearly all of the hats to a single Seattle-based client.

I spent time researching this likely donor and attempted to find contact information for her family. About a month ago I sent a letter to someone I hoped was her son. And YESTERDAY I got back a signed deed of gift. As I had hoped, he had shared the information and the images with his sister, so both children were on board with making the donation official. The sister even wrote a note saying that she recognized the hats as belonging to her mother. I literally bounded down the hallway when I opened the letter. This is the museum equivalent of solving a cold case murder. 


I have to admit, the woman in Chicago did most of the work so she may be the Phryne of this partnership. I guess that makes me Jack-- generally useful but mostly standing around looking great in a suit. Hmm...that analogy may have gotten away from me. What was I saying? Something about Jack looking good in a suit? 


And speaking of hats...if you are an archivist, educator, milliner, couture house worker, or unrepentant spinster, don't forget to celebrate St. Catherine's Day on the 25th! 

Monday, November 10, 2014

My favorite –polis is Indianapolis

This last week I was in Indianapolis for my college roommate’s wedding. I went a few days early to hang out with her and another college friend and we spent pretty much the whole time talking, eating, and drinking. All three activities were off the charts awesome. I have to say, I was looking forward to Indiana food—thinking it would be all Chinese buffets and mayonnaise macaroni salad. Instead, roommate and her fiancé took us to every hip spot in the city and we dined like cosmopolitan foodies. I had brussels sprouts and goat cheese in a crepe at a Belgian restaurant, cheese and charcuterie at a deli that sold quince paste, a turkey burger with arugula and caramelized onions, and drank several kinds of local craft beer. The only buffet we went to was all-vegetarian Indian food. I was just about ready to move when we passed a neighborhood of beautiful old Victorian houses and my roommate remarked that they were “very expensive” and started at as much as $500,000. 

Me, thinking about tiny $550,000 condos next door in Seattle

On Friday I moved into a hotel room and that too, was awesome. There is nothing quite like checking into a nice hotel to make you feel like an adult. After rolling around on the multi-pillowed king-size bed, I decided to go out and explore. The hotel was literally across the street from two museums on my must-see list, which means I was in vacation heaven. One was the Eiteljorg museum of American Indians and Western Art, and the other the Indiana State Museum.  The latter had a touring exhibit titled American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, which I had to check out because the next stop is little ol’ MOHAI. I walked through with 100 screaming school children, and tried very hard to be delighted by how much they were enjoying the exhibit rather than grumpy and wishing they would DIAL IT DOWN A FEW NOTCHES. But overall I really liked it and look forward to it coming to Seattle. I think I can do better dressing the mannequins though...

(The 20s ideal may have been lean and columnar, but women did not actually defy biology and turn into shapeless poles)

To be fair, I also don't know how to keep male Dorfman forms from leaning

Saturday was wedding day, and I ended up as a last-minute bridesmaid because the regularly scheduled bridesmaid was stuck in Australia. She is from there, had gone for a short trip, and had lost her wallet and her green card and couldn’t get the appropriate paperwork to return on time. It was a sucky situation and I know the bride and the groom really missed having her there. But I was happy to step in, get fancy hair, wear a borrowed dress, and clutch a bouquet in front a bunch of people. 

Trying my hand at this whole "selfie" thing the kids are talking about

It was a Catholic wedding, which was a new experience for me. Sometimes something familiar would happen and I’d be like “Ooh! Ooh! I know this one!” and then I’d say some response out loud and it would be totally different that what everyone else was saying and be like, “Nope, guess not.”


Fortunately I didn't ruin the wedding, everything was beautiful, and the reception was at a German restaurant so there were heaping plates of sauerkraut for everyone. Win-win-win. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Being the giant costume nerd that I am, you might imagine that Halloween is like my #1 favorite holiday. You might envision that each year I whip up some elaborate, period accurate costume and party in my bustle like its 1889. But alas, that is not the case. While I certainly wouldn't mind if someone made me an amazing costume every year, and I don't have anything against Halloween, I tend to put in minimal effort. If it can be done with no wig, no makeup, and clothes I already in my closet, then I'm in. But with those criteria, I've actually been able to do pretty well. For example, last year I went as Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation:

In fact, this was the second time I leveraged my blonde hair and Amy Poehler's awesomeness into a costume. One of my all time favorites was the year that Olivia and I went as the characters from Baby Mama. 

(I did, however, have to buy that terry cloth tube top. Thankfully, I did not already own one of those)

The other best pairs costume I've done is the easy yet instantly recognizable Wayne and Garth:


My closet does, in fact, have some pretty weird things in in. I also have my "historical underwear" costume which I have pulled out a few times. It consists of a 1970s white blouse from my mother, a tan JC Penney skirt from when "peasant skirts" were in, and a corset I made a few years ago.  It is basically my 19th century twist on a "slutty" Halloween costume in which I am still covered from wrist to ankle. 

(Pictured here with a wonderful grad school classmate of mine who does sew her own historically accurate costumes)

This year my friend Angie and I were brainstorming pairs costume ideas and someone suggested that we go as Little Bo Peep and her lost sheep. It was this weird moment where it dawned on us that 1) we knew exactly who would play who and 2) it would be shockingly easy. She liked the idea of playing a sheep and had various fuzzy, wooly things to wear, and I had an appalling number of things that would work for Bo Peep. The result was one of the easiest costumes I have ever done, while looking like I had spent a lot of time on it. 

Seriously. The only thing I didn't already own was the crook.