Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Another Exotic Vacation

Right now I can barely contain my excitement, because later today I will be on vacation and on my way to NORTH DAKOTA.

I know. You are so jealous right now.

I'm going to hang out with my mom's side of the family, eat delicious things, stay in a Victorian themed B&B, and visit a small town museum while I'm there.

But obviously the best part is that my parents and I are TAKING THE TRAIN!

I'm realizing that over the last few years I've been making many trips to middle states, including IndianaKansas and Montana. And while I haven't been adding stamps in my passport, I usually have a great time seeing places that are very different than Seattle. Plus, the fun factor goes way up when train travel is part of the deal.

Oh, did I mention I'm TAKING THE TRAIN!!!!

Seriously, I am barely holding it together right now. I'll file a full report when I get back.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Inventory Quagmire

I've found that I use the word "quagmire" I lot in my work. Like, "I can't even think about the flag quagmire right now," or "no one wants to vacuum that rack because it is just a quagmire of ruffles."


The existence of any quagmires in the collection is basically due to having an overwhelming amount of stuff. As I've mentioned before, museums are like icebergs. What you see on display is just a visible nugget of a hidden behemoth. MOHAI went through a long period where we took everything offered to us, and the sheer volume of stuff often makes my head spin.

It is most common to wander unknowingly into a quagmire during inventory. Most of the time inventory is pretty fun because you get to discover things in the collection that no one has looked at in years. Sometimes you can get a good pace going and maybe get through a couple boxes or even a couple shelves in one day. But then you open a nightmare box and BOOM you are stuck working on it for weeks.


What makes a box a quagmire is one or more of the following issues:
-Items are small and the box is packed full
-Box is disorganized, items are in poor condition, and it is difficult to locate numbers
-The box is full of FICs and items that aren't already listed in the database, so you are creating completely new records as you go.

Right now I am in a quagmire of baby caps.

The thing is, individually most of these are quite delightful. Most are handmade and are beautiful examples of home crochet, knitting, tatting, lacemaking, and sewing. They are each different and I can see why someone thought they were worth saving, and why a museum might be an appropriate place.

But I think this box I'm working on right now must have 60 little caps in it. Opening it for the first time felt like:

When you look at the box as a whole, there are just stacks and stacks of flat little white caps. And it is box 1 of 3 in the baby hat section. That is TOO MANY CAPS!!!!!!!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Proud To Be Femme And Love Fashion

No doubt, no doubt, by this time you are aware that the decorated Olympian formerly known as Bruce Jenner made her debut as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair this week. People cheered and then immediately started dissecting what this meant and then dissecting the way that other people were dissecting it. One of the key topics: Good for her, but isn't she conforming to a particular standard of beauty? Should we really be celebrating that? 

Laverne Cox wrote a wonderfully eloquent piece applauding Caitlyn but also reminding us all that not all trans women have the resources to look like her, nor do they all want to. It was a great reminder to celebrate the diverse expressions of trans beauty, and indeed the diverse beauty of all people.

Then there was Jon Stewart's Daily Show segment about the media treating Caitlyn Jenner as a woman--with all the underlying terribleness that that can sometimes include. 

But there was a particular well-meaning angle to this discussion which made me uncomfortable and I couldn't quite put my finger on it--until I found this wonderful article titled Caitlyn Jenner is High Femme, Get Over It.

Read it. It's awesome.

An entrenched and inflexible gender binary doesn't really work for anyone. It excludes trans and genderqueer individuals, tells men they aren't supposed to cry, and tells women that their most important quality is their looks. Which basically makes everyone feel like: 

But in our hurry to break down those barriers, we still somehow end up affirming traditional masculine traits over traditional feminine ones. Rather than celebrating both, we start talking about masculinity in terms like "strong" and "authentic," while femininity is "weak" and centered around artifice. 

As a cisgender woman who loves skirts more than pants and studies fashion for a living, I have experienced this over and over. It is someone saying "that is only interesting to women," and assuming we all agree that to be a negative. It is that little look of pity some people give me when they hear me talk about fashion. They assume I've been "duped" by the system, and can't imagine that I'm capable of thoughtfully engaging with the subject. 

It is that mistake that we have made about feminism over and over: Feminism isn't about women all living one way, it is about women (and all people) having the CHOICE to be who they want to be. It's not about abolishing dresses and high heels, its about making sure that pants and comfy shoes are an equally valid option. So while I absolutely do not think that all women should dress in a hyper-feminine way (because really, when it comes to gender expression no one should to be doing anything) we shouldn't tear down any person for choosing to occasionally or continually dress femme.  

There is this strong understanding in our culture that clothing is false and artificial. If clothing is artifice and women like clothing, then it follows that femininity is all about putting on a fake identity over a real one.  But as Anne Hollander has so wisely pointed out, every culture has some sort of system of dress, and so perhaps being clothed is our most natural state. This excerpt from her book Seeing Through Clothes blew my mind when I first read it: 

Surveys of many cultures lead us to conclude that the truly natural state of the adult human is dressed, or decorated, but that his sense of nature demands from him a deep respect for nakedness...Nakedness is not a customary but rather an assumed state, common to all but natural to none, except on significantly marked occasions. These may be ritual, theatrical, or domestic, but they are always special, no matter how frequent. (emphasis mine)

We all get dressed, and we all define ourselves when we do. Stop acting like its just femme women who do this and that it is somehow bad and fake. Caitlyn Jenner is a woman and is super femme. If that look doesn't resonate with you, that's great! Go and be yourself whatever that looks like. And if you feel drawn to aspects of a feminine look, embrace it! And don't let anyone tell you that it is somehow false or inauthentic.