Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 In Review

There are many things I could write about 2014, but there are few that could be more simply put or more satisfying than this:

These are all the wire hangers that were removed from collections storage in 2014. This pile represents hundreds of garments which are now on better hangers or stored in boxes because of work done this year by me and my incredible team of volunteers.

So here's to all the accomplishments of 2014, and may 2015 be filled with many new and fulfilling endeavors.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Holiday Celebrations

I went a whole week without mentioning Miss Fisher on this blog, but that drought is about to end.

While watching the entire series for a second time, Olivia and I were reminded that Phryne's birthday is December 21st--"Summer Solstice" since the show takes place in Australia. And since Melbourne is 18 hours ahead of Seattle, Saturday was the perfect day to celebrate.  We drank champagne, ate multiple kinds of cheese, and settled in for four episodes of Miss Fisher and the movie Cold Comfort Farm.

Good times.

Sunday we celebrated Hanukkah by making/eating piles of latkes at Olivia's parents' house, and then singing a bunch of old timey Christmas carols at at party at my parents' house. (Like, Renaissance/Medieval old timey).


Speaking of Christmas, I found this strange ad for a menswear store in the Seattle Times from 1920:

Employing the time-honored marketing tool of obnoxious screaming men...

...and the puzzled women who love them.

Nothing like a desperate plea for underwear to put you in the Christmas spirit

So however you celebrate this season of holidays, may joy and blessings be with you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Helloooo Sailor!

It's that time of year!

Advent? Hanukkah? Solstice? Well yes, but also MANNEQUIN DRESSING TIME.

Ever since the new MOHAI opened two years ago I've been rotating the garments at the museum every six months. Prep work happens in December and June, and the switches usually happen in January and July.

As usual, I've got a few pieces that I'm really excited about. This round is particularly thrilling because I've finally gotten approval to switch out the weird face mannequins for plainer forms.


I had a long list of reasons why I wasn't a big fan of these forms, but the main issue was that they limited what kinds of dresses I could use. There are a couple really fab gowns that didn't fit the old forms that are now back in the pipeline for display.

Whatever. I'll still haunt your dreams, suckers.

Also as usual, there are a few outfits that I'm nervous about. Will they be easy to dress? Are there hidden condition issues that will only become obvious halfway through the process? One frequent source of consternation is the WWII uniform. With most of the other outfits I feel confident doing the dressing and writing labels. If I have questions about how something should be properly dressed, I know how to do that research and what sources to look at. I can also feel confident that my educated guess is probably pretty good, and it is unlikely that someone will be OUTRAGED by a choice I make. But military uniforms are a whole different deal. I don't know that much about them, but there are a lot of people who do. If I put the wrong pieces together, tie something the wrong way, or attach a medal in the wrong place, people will notice that mistake IMMEDIATELY. And they will make sure someone HEARS ABOUT IT.

Or perhaps just stop what they are doing and look at me with distain

For this round I picked a crisp Navy dress blue uniform, colloquially referred to as "crackerjacks (someone had to tell me that, I had no idea).

Well, Hellooooo Sailor!
(fun fact: Looking someone up and down and then saying "Hellooooo Sailor" 
has a 9/10 success rate of totally creeping them out)

Becoming a fashion historian is like gaining a sort of visual literacy. I sometimes have to remind myself that the general public doesn't automatically know the difference between clothing from 1880s and 1900, and that a slinky long dress with a natural waist is obviously more of a 1930s look than 1925.

Or that calling this a "Marie Antoinette Costume" is clearly some kind of mistake

But I don't have that visual literacy for uniforms, and it sort of freaks me out. Fortunately, I know a couple experts I can call on with questions about ties, tucked or untucked shirts, and what all the symbols and stripes mean. So I'm learning, but its not a language that I'm picking up easily. However, I am at the point where I can correctly identify that this: NOT standard military issue. 

Unless there is some special ops stripper division that I don't know about.

Sigh. Still so much to learn. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Blogger angst

Last weekend I started writing a post but then got all hesitant and ended up never actually publishing it. Basically, with the news so dominated by Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it has felt weird to post anything on social media that isn't about racism in America. But then it also felt weird to post my two cents, because I'm like 0% the authority on what it is like to be a person of color in this country. I sort of feel like...

Basically, replace "advice" with "discourse on resolving institutional racism" and "sarcastic comment" with "fashion-related factoid" or "comedic gif."

I think I'm better off listening and educating myself, but at the same time, I don't want people to imagine I don't think or care about anything beyond what I write about here. If I wail about how emotionally devastated I was by the end of Season 2 of Miss Fisher, you all know that that grief is not actually equal to the grief I feel about real human suffering, right?

(It is more important to me to live in a world where Black Lives Matter than get a Phryne/Jack kiss, but frankly neither seemed like MUCH TO ASK FOR)

So while I support many causes for justice and equality, I still have a lot to learn, and I certainly shouldn't have delusions that I'm some kind of leading voice. On this blog, I will continue to only get on my soap box for causes I can speak about authoritatively.

Here are some things I felt qualified to speak about authoritatively this week:

1) How amazing these shoes are:

c. 1912 purchased at Seattle store Turrell's

2) How exciting it is to get Christmas music passed out during choir practice:


3) How embarrassingly bad my french pronunciation is:

A french person, probably

(We are also singing "Un flambeau, Jeannette Isabelle" or as I say it "Ann Flambow Janet Eesabellah")

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. 

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.