Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 Holiday Card

Dear Devoted Readers,

Thank you so much for your laughs and appreciation in 2013.

Next week at this time I'll be busy bridesmaiding at a wedding, so this is likely my last post for the year. 

So I just wanted to wish you...

...and a Hiddleston New Year!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Five Stages of Reading Bad Fashion History

About a year ago I was asked to review books for a publication called Choice, which is used by college and university librarians to pick books for their shelves. I don't get paid, but I get to keep the book they send me to review. So, every few months I get an email that is like "Hey Clara, this hardcover edition of a book you wanted to buy anyway is in the mail right now." Awesome.

In addition to the concise 190-word review, I'm supposed to say if I recommend the book and for what academic level. This month, for the first time, I labeled a book "Not Recommended." Here is how it played out:

Stage 1: Excitement

Latest Book Has Arrived!!!

There are so many photos of actual surviving gowns!!!

Stage 2: Cause for Concern

"Poiret is credited with freeing women from corsets"
"[Vionnet is] credited with inventing the bias cut"
Ok, not technically incorrect (because you say "credited") but you are implying that those statements are true and are therefore perpetuating those myths. Fashion never happens in a vacuum, so a red flag goes up for me whenever a designer is said to have singlehandedly invented something. 

Oh dear. Did your editor take a nap?

Stage 3: Huh...I thought that...

"Despite the inevitable press coverage, there does not appear to be a surviving example [of Schiaparelli's Skeleton dress] and it would fetch six figures if discovered"
There is one at the V&A. To be fair, you have to scroll all the way down to the FIRST hit on Google, so I can see how you could miss it. 

"From 1963 [Lanvin] employed the Spanish couturier Antonio Castillo"
Just a few weeks prior, one of my volunteers discovered a wonderful Lanvin-Castillo dress in the MOHAI collection which was sold in the designer room at Frederick & Nelson. I read the line above and thought...hmm...wasn't that dress we found from the 1950s?

Turns out 1963 is the year Castillo left Lanvin. 

Stage 4: Horror

"In 1926 Coco launched the perfect backdrop for jewels, real or fake—the little black dress"
Any book/documentary that pulls out the 1926 Chanel LBD date instantly and irreparably looses credibility. 1926 was the year a particularly famous Chanel LBD appeared in Vogue, but as soon as you look at the evidence you find simple black dresses from Chanel and other designers long before 1926. In fact, this book, after citing the 1926 date, shows a 1924 LBD example on the very next page. For the love of Coco look at the evidence in front of you!!!

Stage 5: Gleeful Search For Other Errors

“Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake – debuted in Paris in 1981” 
True of Kawakubo and Yamamoto, but Miyake had already shown in Paris by '81.

"The anti-fashion movement known as 'grunge' was a mismatched, layered look of denim jackets, granny-style floral dresses, low-waisted thong-revealing jeans, combat trousers..."
Britney Spears: Grunge Icon

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the low-waisted thong-reveal a late-90s/early 2000s trend? 

"At 1968's Woodstock..."
Ok, now you are just embarrassing yourself 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Luly Has Landed

Stop what you are doing. 

Luly Yang loaned MOHAI a couture gown and it is on display RIGHT NOW.

What was that you said about Seattle having no fashion? YOU'LL HAVE TO SPEAK UP I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER ALL THIS FABULOUSNESS

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Things I'm Thankful For

Dispite the occasional outburst of rage directed at decade-old NYT articles, I'm a pretty happy person. In the spirit of the season, I thought I would do a post about things I am thankful for. But I quickly realized I would have to limit it, because there is too much to pack in. All my friends are awesome, my parents and extended family are cool, and I have a super-sweet job. Gushing about all that would be boring for everyone but me. So here is a short list of highly specific things that have been giving me the happy feels recently.

Museum Volunteers Who Love Things That I Love

Despite the title of this blog, I actually haven't been doing a lot of vacuuming lately. I do a lot of delegating. So, much like a pop star who has a team of people to make her look fabulous, I am a museum diva who has a team of people who help me get my work done.

In this metaphor: Great hair = A perfect padded hanger
I have volunteers who make padded hangers, dress mannequins, sew garment covers, and help vacuum the acres of clothes that we brought from the old storage space.

Besides the fact that they help me do what it would take 20 years to do alone, what I love about  my volunteers is that they are super into into. When I take people back into storage or pick out a rack for them to clean, I never tire of getting the grown-up approximation of this face:

Everyday is like a birthday when vintage clothing is involved

The vacuuming volunteers have a particularly infectious brand of enthusiasm. Initially I was worried I would have trouble recruiting people for this mostly tedious task. They have to carefully check the garment (every seam, every pocket, every crevice) for dust, lint, and signs of bug activity, make notes about the condition, and then vacuum out any particulate matter. But the schedule filled up right away and the people who do it are really dedicated. They like it because they get to see the garments up close.  Many of my volunteers have sewing experience or have a particular interest in historical dress. They will often call me over just to show me how a seam is finished or wax rhapsodic the construction of some pleating.

Evensong. Realness.

I am in a tiny church choir. We wear giant polyester blue robes and usually sing for a congregation of about 8. And it is the best.  Rehearsals usually involve irreverent religious jokes, sight-reading meltdowns, our director singing "Born Free" every time we have trouble with a downward fourth, and of course-- beautiful sacred music.

Last Sunday we sang a set of music by Nico Muhly and I am obsessed with it. You can hear a recording of it here. I don't really have a follow-up joke here. I just really love my choir.

The Deep, Cosmic, Pop-Culture Connection That I Share With My Roommate 

A few weeks ago, Olivia went out of town and left to my own devices. What started with a simple search for gifs to use on this blog, ended with me getting lost down a deep internet rabbit hole. You might not realize it, but searching for the perfect gif can be an arduous and confusing process. As one searches, one finds lots of things from unfamiliar shows and movies. And one thinks-- Who is this "Loki" character? What is this strange power enticing me to watch a movie that has fights and explosions in it?

By the time Olivia returned from the trip, I felt like I had to make an embarrassing confession. Barely able to look her in the eye, I started, "So...I somehow spent an entire evening watching TWO action movies on Netflix..."

"Wait. Stop," she said, "Does this in some way involve Tom Hiddleston? Because I feel like that is a thing we should be into."

And all was right with the world.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy St. Catherine's Day!

My first semester of grad school we had an assignment to choose a painting in a local collection and do a presentation about the clothing in said painting. I picked this altarpiece at the Met by Joos van Cleve:

Which has, over on the left side, this elegant figure:

At first I assumed she was a wealthy patron who had funded the altarpiece, but I quickly discovered that she was St. Catherine of Alexandria-- an educated, unmarried woman who was martyred for winning religious debates against the smartest men in town. When I gave my presentation, my professor also remarked that she is the patron saint of milliners and couture house workers, and that for a long time St. Catherine's day was a big celebration for the seamstresses in Paris. 

When you visit her Wikipedia page, you find that she is also the patron saint of unmarried women (particularly those over 25), archivists, educators, and librarians. She is most commonly depicted as fashionably dressed, with blonde hair worn "unbound" (aka down with no product / blowdrying necessary).

Sure babies are cute, but I'm trying to read over here

Basically the only way this woman could be more my saint would be if she was literally the patron of fashion historians in mid-sized cities. 

So I would like to make St. Catherine's Day (today, November 25th) a thing. Since she is fashionable and looks out for those who make fashion, obviously dressing up is required. Her patronage of milliners meant that hats were a big part of the celebration in France. So wear a hat or something cool atop your free-flowing, unbound locks-- and raise a glass to the archivists, librarians, and educators that keep our society running. 

Catherinettes in Paris, 1909
The last thing I need to get this holiday going is reclaiming the St. Catherine's day prayer. A lot of the traditional festivities seem to simultaneously celebrate and shame unmarried women over 25. There are several versions of the "I need a husband!" prayer that you can read on the Wikipedia page, but the most basic one goes like this: 

St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid, And grant that I never may die an old maid 

Blech. Here are a few I've come up with:

St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid, And grant that there be no moths in this jacket with gold brocade

St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid, And grant that, just for being a woman, I am not underpaid

St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid, And grant me the words to throw mine enemies some epic shade

St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid, And see that another Poehler/Fey movie one day gets made

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Angry Dispatches From The Prada-Free Zone

This week I found myself enraged by an article published over a decade ago.  On Monday I met with the director of my museum to talk about the possibility of doing a major fashion exhibition in the future. He liked my idea but also encouraged me to think critically and ponder some tough questions before preparing a more official proposal. 

One of the issues he brought up was the fact that some of the themes of my proposed exhibition were similar to a 2001 show MOHAI did called Who? What? Wear!. I had heard about it, but what I didn't know was that it had gotten a snarkily scathing review in the New York Times.  He encouraged me to read the review and acquaint myself with what I would be up against. 

The piece in question was written by Alex Witchel and titled "Seattle Style: A Contradiction In Terms?" Let me walk you through it. 

It starts like this: 

The first name this town ever had was given to it by settlers in 1851: ''New York Alki,'' which translated from Chinook jargon means ''New York . . . Someday!''

One hundred and fifty years later, the question remains: But when?

Wow. Awesome. She starts out by making it sound like Seattle has desperately, pathetically, always wished it was New York. I have usually heard the translation as "New York by and by," which to me has a cooler "just wait this city is going to be awesome" connotation than "Someday!" which sounds like it is being sung by a starry-eyed cowboy in a musical. 

The next line goes right for the jugular.

The delay was painfully evident at the Museum of History and Industry's current exhibition, ''Who? What? Wear!'' 

Can we just pause here for a moment and bring up the fact that in 2001 MOHAI had way fewer resources that it does now? It was a small museum with a small budget in an aging venue. You are really going to judge the progress of an entire city based on one one exhibit in an underfunded museum?  

At a time when fashion has been invading museums and the Jacqueline Kennedy exhibition is packing them in at the Met in New York, the home of Eddie Bauer finds itself wrestling with the sticky questions, ''What is Seattle Style?'' and, perhaps more to the point, ''Is there a Seattle Style?''

Oh, here we go. MOHAI a fair comparison to the Met and Eddie Bauer as the one and only point of reference for clothing in Seattle. I'm shocked that grunge didn't get mixed in there too. 

For a while she diverts to explain that her only knowledge of the city comes from a 1960s TV show and that for assistance she recruited Stranger editor Dan Savage as a companion for the tour. 

Mr. Savage qualified as a tour guide in this Prada-free zone was that he freely admits to being clueless about clothes.


Seattle style, which seems to have two claims to fame: Eddie Bauer, with his insulated down jackets and outerwear, and Kurt Cobain, with his secondhand flannel shirts and ripped jeans, which inspired the grunge craze.

After making fun of the fact that there was no one else in the museum, Savage starts spouting some pretty brutal Seattle shade:

"Seattle thinks it's Paris but it's really Dubuque...Seattle has that Podunk thing going on -- the people running it haven't ever been anywhere else. Anybody who's been to the Art Institute of Chicago or the Met in New York, to say nothing of Europe, would walk into the Seattle Art Museum and have to take a fistful of Xanax."

Yep. Seattle museums are smaller and less lavish because we are all homebound hicks who down't know any better. 

At that moment, Leonard Garfield, the museum's executive director, appeared, clearly unnerved at the prospect of having the town malcontent aim his ire at the rain poncho and stirrup pants from the Century 21 fashion show at the 1962 World's Fair, which was to have introduced Seattle Style to the world.

Ok, fact check. The fashion show at the the World's Fair was sponsored by Vogue and starred ready-to-wear clothing from all over the country. Any snark about those clothes should be directed toward the American clothing industry, not Seattle. 

Then, some more bitchery from Savage:

"It's like the Victoria and Albert concept applied to a place where people have only been wearing clothes for 150 years,'' Mr. Savage observed. ''Until the 50's, all of Seattle was Times Square, filled with whorehouses, and now they're trying to stamp that out..."


...After surveying different displays of Earth shoes, a christening gown and an evening gown on a mannequin wearing a paper hat fastened with a brooch, Mr. Savage threw up his hands. ''I lived in Europe for four years,'' he said. ''You see the Vatican Museum, and even the Egyptians at the Met in New York bores you after you've seen what the Pope got first. So displays like these, applied to Grandpa's closet, are just weird.''

Ugh, tell me about it. Any museum less dazzling than the V&A, the Vatican, or the Met should just shrivel up and die already. 

After Savage explains that Seattle is transitioning into becoming a big city, Witchel concludes the review this way:

It still has a way to go. At the front desk, I asked a receptionist if the museum had a restaurant where we might sit down and keep talking.

She smiled brightly. ''No, we just have junk food in vending machines,'' she said.

Ah. Maybe someday.

Ugh. Condescending crap like this is what gives New Yorkers a bad name. 

Now, I understand that I am a "Let's give everyone a medal just for participating!" sort of person, and that sometimes reviews are about handing out harsh truths. Seattle is not New York. True. Who? What? Wear! was probably not the most polished of exhibits, and whatever I create won't be on par the Met or the Museum at FIT either. True. 

But looking at one exhibition to prove a point about style in Seattle? Measuring all museums against the top institutions in the world, and assuming all shortcomings are proof that the local idiots must not know any better? Picking someone who doesn't care about clothes as the ideal informant about fashion in Seattle? Doing no research and relying on old cliches about Eddie Bauer and grunge? 

This is me applauding your amazing, insightful review

Oh, and BTW we aren't a Prada-free zone and weren't in 2001 either. You could buy Prada at Barney's in Seattle in the 1990s and Nordstrom sells it now too. Also, be careful what you say. The Schiaparelli and Prada exhibition at the Met was possible thanks to funding from Seattle online retailer 

It made me all the more excited to try to prove this kind of thinking wrong. Seattle is different from New York yes, but its style is interesting, complicated, innovative, and sometimes devastatingly glamorous. You'll see. I'll have my revenge...Alki. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

When To Say No To Cross-Dressing

When we cleaned out the old storage location there were a bunch of odd mannequins from various stages of the museum's history. They ranged from homemade wood lumps, to life-size bendy stick-men, to mannequins from department stores. Trying to turn a new leaf and not just keep piles of old stuff "just in case," we decided to find new homes for things we weren't planning to use in the foreseeable future. For months now we've had three full-sized male mannequins hanging out in the conditioning room, waiting for that "new home." They added a nice creepy ambiance to the space. "Whoops! Can't set my supplies down there--that's where the disembodied arms are kept!" Finally, we listed them on a website for local historical societies. Free, but you have to come pick them up.

It wasn't long before we got an enthusiastic response from a small organization. Mannequins can be prohibitively expensive, so we felt warm and fuzzy about helping out another nonprofit. When they came to pick them up though, it seemed like they hadn't read the description carefully and were a little surprised that it was three male mannequins. But no matter. We cheerfully started loading them in the car.

When it was all done they turned to me and said, "So...these are male mannequins. But we have this wedding dress..."

...Do you think we can make that work?"

"Really? Even if know...pad the chest a bit?"

No girl. No. That will not work. 

Now, I realize the irony of using a drag queen gif to say you can't put a woman's garment on a male mannequin. But here is the thing: the human body is a magical, malleable, thing. People come in all shapes and sizes. Bodies can be squished, tucked, and padded. Men can dress like women, women can dress like men, and we can all question the gender binary. But a hulky fiberglass man shaped object? You might as well be dressing a tree trunk. 

Now, I could be wrong, and the dress is large enough to fit over a padded log. But I doubt it. It is probably tiny and built for someone who spent their life in a girdle. Adding breasts is going to be the least of your problems. The difference between male and female bodies is so much more complicated than breasts.

Despite what Michelangelo might lead you to believe
The shoulders, chest, waist, and hips are all going to be the wrong shape and size. Oh, and did I mention the mannequins had non-removable heads? Square-jawed, thick necked, man heads? Yeah. 

To review:

Men wearing dresses in real life?

Some exhibition where you intentionally cross dress mannequins to make a point about gendered clothing?

Attempting to make a male, fiberglass mannequin fit a woman's wedding dress and hope no one will notice?


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Don't Let Me Design Consumer Products

You guys. I just invented something awesome. Coming to an infomercial near you:


Here is the mind-blowing invention story: We were switching up the dress on the 1920s mannequin and the new dress was looking pretty good. BUT we were having problems with the neckline. For one thing, the V in the front was going just a tiny bit too low and you could see the line where the hard upper torso transitions to the soft body lower torso. We also hadn't put in a barrier layer between the top of the mannequin (not made of an archival material) and the dress. As we contemplated quickly sewing a camisole and padding the shoulders to lift the neckline of the dress, we wondered if there was a faster, easier option. Then our eyes fell on a pair of pre-washed pantyhose. 

Pantyhose + Padding + Draped Like a Stole = PantyStoles

Business in the Front

Panties in the Back

All Day Padded Neckline Hotness

You may now start throwing money at me. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Daily Tragedy and Comedy of Artifact Care

Here, in three photos, is a short but gripping tale. Starring: a Padded Hanger.

Anger. Emptiness. Sorrow

But lo! A padded hanger with padded volara clips!


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Innovation and the World of Tomorrow

The big news at MOHAI this week was that we opened the Bezos Center for Innovation-- a permanent display in our new building funded by Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos (Jeff founded a little local business called

The public opening was yesterday, but Friday morning was the private VIP brunch. It was high security because both the governor and Mr. Bezos were there, so the planners requested staff help rather than recruiting volunteers. I was assigned to coat check which I was happy about because it was basically just my regular job. Step 1: Assign numbers to incoming clothes. Step 2: Keep clothes in order. Step 3: When asked to retrieve clothing, pray that you have done 1 and 2 well enough to find said clothing before someone gets upset.

Besides all the VIP guests, about half the audience were local school children. They submitted questions for Mr. Bezos to answer during a Q&A, and after the program they got to explore the new displays. Unfortunately, no one asked any hard-hitting questions like What is Anna Wintor like in person? and How hard did Miuccia Prada try to ignore you during all the Met photo ops?

Answer: Pretty hard

The really exciting thing about the child-friendly aspect of the event was that the box lunches were served in adorable collapsable containers. After the event was over, the staff rushed the table of leftovers. I was not alone in being super stoked about all the portable meal possibilities.

Museum Life: Low Pay, Free Branded Swag
Once the morning event was over I went back the other MOHAI building to get some regular work done. One of the things on the agenda was unfolding this large fabric banner which had been wadded up in storage until now. All we knew was that it was from a Soviet display at a 1972 trade fair in Seattle, and that it should be about 10 feet by 12 feet. As we started to unfurl it, it because obvious that those numbers were not even close. We never got it completely flat because we ran out of space, but our estimate was closer to 40 by 45 feet. Oh, and it was also really cool.

Minus the water damage

The panorama function was our only hope of getting it all in one frame

It was this colorful, energetic, almost psychedelic celebration of space exploration and Soviet cosmonauts. To give you a sense of scale, here is collections manager Betsy waving back at our space-journeying friend.

To Infinity Improved Storage-- and Beyond!