Type the word “dress” into the Chicago History Museum’s online search engine and the first piece of clothing to come up is an exquisite silk satin and taffeta wedding bodice from the year 1896. A zoom feature allows you to take a better look at the piece covered in sparkling rhinestones, pearls and silver cording. It is in impeccable condition. The second “dress” of the search: a voluminous Butterfly gown by the sculptor of fabric Charles James, AND it is only one of several masterpieces by James in the museum’s holdings. A treasure trove of couture, it houses works by the greatest designers in fashion history, from Worth and Poiret to Dior, Givenchy and Versace.
But as the results of the “dress” search further reveal, there is more to the history of dress than the glitz and glamour of luxury fashion. One of the museum’s most rare and valuable pieces is not couture at all but a uniform worn by Daughters of the Regiment member Lizzie C. Jones during the Civil War. 1861 to be exact. That the ensemble appears in the search next to a signature Delphos gown by Mariano Fortuny speaks to the expanse and importance of this collection, which consists of more than 50,000 costumes and textiles dating from the 18th century to the present day. Jessica Pushor has the the dream job of managing this prized collection where every day brings a journey into the pages of fashion’s past! Please enjoy my interview with Jessica below.
Tell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress. I am the collections manager for the costume and textile collection at the Chicago History Museum. My job is to catalog, inventory, and store all objects that are a part of the costume collection, which is estimated to be in the 50,000’s (we are still counting). I also assist the Curator of Costume by pulling objects for researchers, conduct tours and research appointments, dress garments for exhibition, and assist with the installation and de-installation of exhibitions. I like to say “If you can wear it, I take care of it!”
Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? As a visual learner, fashion/clothing has always helped me understand and relate to history. We all wear clothing, we feel them, take them on and off every day, we relate to them on a personal level. Not all of us have an oil painting or a marble bust of our great aunt in our house, which is why clothing collections can be a great teaching tool in museums. They can help a viewer connect to a person who lived hundreds of years ago or to understand the enormous wealth and power of a culture.
What does a typical day at your job look like? Well everyday is different, I try to work on several different projects in any given day. I will inventory a portion of the collection, which includes photographing, repacking and updating the location and records of the objects. I catalog new objects coming into the collection and work on cleaning up records so that they can be put online and shared with the public. I conduct tours and research appointments for scholars and various groups. I pull objects for the conservator to assess for loans and exhibitions. I work with the curator to bring in new objects to the collection and help find objects for loans, research requests and possible exhibitions. From time to time I will also dress garments for exhibition and work with the registrar and exhibition staff to install and de-install exhibitions. I enjoy my job because I am always doing something different on any given day; it keeps me from being solely on my feet or sitting in front of the computer.
What is the most exciting object you have come across in the collection? I find cool things in the collection almost every week. Not long ago I needed to pull a Worth dress for a college class tour. I like to pull pieces that the curator and I have not seen before because it keeps things interesting for us, plus it gives me a chance to photograph, repack and update the record of an object. The Worth dress I just happened to pull turned out to be a bright pink House of Worth ironwork dress, circa 1900. I posted photos of the dress to my Instagram and people went nuts because they never knew that colorway in that dress existed. This collection is so rich with amazing pieces that you never know just what you might find.
In your opinion, is fashion art? It can be, and I believe that some garments are perfect representations of a designer’s artistic vision. It is in these garments that one can find true artistic expression. My husband and I cosplay and we create our own costumes and this is how we express our artistic selves. Now I do not believe what I make is “fine art” but it is my art. Because I work for a history museum I know that clothing can also tell the story of the individual who made it, sold it, wore it, and how it made its way to a museum collection. I don’t think one is more important than the other, but most museums choose one lens through which to interpret fashion.
If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to The Art of Dress followers, what would it be? Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General 1876-1898 by Cynthia Cooper. Fancy dress balls were huge in the mid-1800 and early 1900’s and yet we learn so little about them in school, this book is a great intro into the history of fancy dress balls and the pictures of people in costume are incredible. I have come across many pieces in the Museum’s collection that are a little off and don’t make sense and that is because they were either older pieces reworked by later generations to be worn as a costume or pieces created at the time to harken back to a specific historical figure. With a good background in fashion and dress studies, one can see the inconsistences in these pieces and how they were altered. Also, get a good fashion dictionary. One of my main duties is cataloging so I know how important it is to use the correct terminology when describing objects and how so many of us do not. The Getty Research Institute has an art and architecture thesaurus online: http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/aat/ which is a great reference and free to use.
If you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? The Age of Innocence (1993), this movie is great in showing the colors, patterns and textures used in clothing of the 1870’s, which you don’t really get from illustrations and paintings alone.
On another note…We just recently closed our fashion exhibition Making Mainbocher: The First American Couturier in August, but you can visit the here for more information on that exhibit. You can also view a small portion of the Chicago History Museum collection at our website here. We are always trying to add more records so check back often and when we announce what our next fashion exhibit will be we will post it to the website.
Thank you Jessica!
2 thoughts on “Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Jessica Pushor, Costumes Collections Manager for the Chicago History Museum”
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Enjoyed the blog, particularly the insight that dresses get reworked for different occasions and maybe even different generations. What woman will ignore a gorgeous gown of her moms? Maybe she will rework it, update it, wear it again. Understanding the role of the fashion historian a little better is fascinating and it really does encompass both fashion AND history.