Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Jessica Pushor, Costumes Collections Manager for the Chicago History Museum

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Paul Poiret’s Sorbet gown, 1913, in the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

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.

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Charles James “Butterfly” evening gown, 1954.

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!”

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Marshall Field & Co. wedding dress worn by Mrs. Helen Reed on her wedding day November 25, 1911.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 9.19.17 AMWhat 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.

Coolest experience? My coolest experience was meeting Bob Mackie and showing him around the collection and having him talk about his career and share his memories about his pieces in CHM’s collection. He was so funny, gracious and a joy to be around. Also seeing students making the connection between what they have learned in school and the actual objects themselves is always great to see. I really enjoy sharing the collection with the public and being able to show off objects that no one thought they would be able to see in person.

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Wedding bodice born as part of wedding ensemble by the donor’s mother (née Florence Sanger Pullman on April 29, 1896 on the occasion of her marriage to Frank Orren Lowden.

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.

i63703Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Past is Halston. One of his pieces could look like just a length of fabric when it is on a hanger, but the second you put it on a human form it comes to life and you see how skilled he was at draping and making a woman look her best. I also love Christian Lacroix; when you look at his clothing you can tell that he was having so much fun designing them and was using amazing high quality fabrics to create them. He was not afraid of color and the man knew his fashion history and you can see that in his designs. Present would be Brandon Maxwell; I really enjoy his aesthetic and that he designs pieces that are sleek and streamlined and allow the female form to be at the center, much like Halston.

 

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.

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Dinner dress by Emile Pingat, 1878.

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.

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WAVES military uniform designed by Mainbocher, ca. 1942

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! 

 

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Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Tziporah Salamon

“It was Matisse that turned my eyes into diamonds.” Tziporah Salamon

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Small Odalisque in Purple Robe by Henri Matisse, 1937, Private Collection.

It is one thing to admire the art of dress, it is another thing entirely to be its living embodiment. And yet, that is exactly what the enchanting, inimitable Tziporah Salamon represents: a walking painting. the-art-of-dressing-book-cover-rizzoliEach of Tziporah’s thoughtfully-crafted ensembles are a work of art, beautifully composed from a lifetime of collecting clothing and accessories from around the world and throughout history. Liquid Chinese-embroidered silk jackets in bright magenta, floral-sprinkled beach pajamas paired with the perfect green hat, a self-styled turban fashioned from Japanese ikat–such are the things that dreams are made of–or quiet literally, the visual manifestation of one woman’s life lived in color. To see Tziporah is to smile.

A personal stylist, fashion consultant, author and performance artist, is it any wonder that Tziporah is also a recognized New York style icon and fashion model? A staple of the beloved street-style photography of the late, great Bill Cunningham, she has starred in both a groundbreaking Lanvin ad campaign and Ari Seth Cohen’s widely-acclaimed documentary Advanced Style, as well as his blog and book of the same name. It is perhaps of no surprise that the woman herself is as captivating as the clothing she wears. Thank you, Tziporah, for being the latest interviewee on The Art of Dress!

 

Tell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress.

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Photograph by Ivy Ney.

 As the daughter of parents who both sewed for a living, I grew up surrounded by cloth. My parents, Hungarian Jews, were accomplished craftsmen, with highly evolved skills. They both made all my clothes. From day one, I was swathed in the clothing of royalty – measured and fit to my exact measures and designed and executed to perfection by both of them. Dad was a master tailor who survived the Holocaust by sewing the Nazi uniforms (and you know how perfect those were) and mom could not only sew, but knit, crochet and embroider. So not only did I have the perfect sky blue hand-knit sweater to pair with the perfectly forming accordion pleats navy blue skirt which sometimes turned into a jumper, but the sweater would have a wreath of flowers, or a few birds, embroidered to it. The same with the royal blue velvet dress with ruffles on the bottom.  Or my father’s red toggle button wool coat with a Little Red Riding Hood hood. Or his knickers, and shorts with suspenders. My clothes were the stuff of dreams, of royalty, of Hollywood glamour.

To top it off, my Aunt Yoli, my Doda Yoli, my father’s favorite sister, after surviving Auschwitz, ended up in America, while my father ended up in Israel.  Over one weekend, while in NYC, the course of her life was changed forever when she met a rich Texan, who took her back to San Antonio where he happened to be the Vice President of Neiman Marcus, the best Dept store in America in the 50’s. When she learned that her favorite brother just had two little girls, she went shopping. And shop she did. On a regular basis, we would receive packages from the store filled to the brim with the most luscious, well-made, fashionable girls clothes of the day. I wore the same clothes picked out by Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother and aunts for young Jackie. So that from day one I had on my body the best clothes that hands could make, and the best clothes that money could buy. The bar was set very high indeed!

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Photograph by Kal Naga.

Fast forward to today, where I travel the world to teach The Art of Dressing Seminar, a 2hour master class in which I use my own extensive collection of antique clothes and accessories to teach the principles of design.  I have also just published a book, THE ART OF DRESSING: Ageless, Timeless, Original Style, published by Rizzoli. It is a beautiful book of which I am most proud. I have a one-woman show called THE FABRIC OF MY LIFE, a sartorial autobiography  and TZIPPY’S TALES, a chronological visit of one woman’s wardrobe through the decades, a show and tell – both of which I have performed at various venues, with my next Tzippy’s Tales to be performed at the Jewish Museum, NY on Nov 30th.

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Photograph by Yaniv Edry.

Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? Because I believe that I was put on this planet to raise the bar when it comes to dressing and style.  It is desperately needed.

In addition, it is a way to honor my parents.
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Photograph by Kal Naga.

In your opinion, is fashion art? Fashion CAN be art – if you take it to that level.  Absolutely. But it must be carefully rendered and follow certain principles of design and be worthy of being called art. Sadly, most of the clothing of today and the way women choose to wear them and how they are portrayed in fashion magazines is NOT art.  Fashion as art must be cultivated, studied, thought about, making careful choices. It starts with a hunger and takes discipline and refinement and discernment. And most importantly, takes a knowing of oneself.

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Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons. 18th-Century Punk, autumn/winter 2016–17; Photograph by © Paolo Roversi.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I guess it would have to be my book,

THE ART OF DRESSING: Ageless, Timeless, Original Style, published by Rizzoli.

If you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, by Hsiao Hsien Hou
For a wonderful slideshow of the evolution of Tziporah’s style, please visit here.
More on the her seminar
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Photograph by Kal Naga.