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 cultural historian Dr. Benjamin Wild

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Cecil Beaton photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1930s. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

Separated by almost 700 years, the commonalities between King Henry III of England and Cecil Beaton are perhaps not entirely obvious at first glance—but then again, we do not all share the percipient gaze of cultural historian Dr. Benjamin Wild. Released last year, Wild’s book A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton was the first to study the evolving style of the famed photographer and costume designer to the stars. Beaton is a well-known staple in the fashion and dress history narrative, but King Henry III, ruler of England from 1216-1272, is not. And yet, Wild’s extensive research reveals that King Henry III, like Beaton, was a pillar of sartorial authority and excellence deserving of attention. The King, who ruled for almost sixty years, used clothing as a powerful tool to not only construct his identity but consolidate and demonstrate his power. Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 8.53.53 PMFrom the overlooked King Henry III (Wild’s nominee for history’s “Best dressed Briton”) to Cecil Beaton to Vivienne Westwood, Wild has explored an impressive spectrum of time in his numerous lectures, published works and fascinating blog. He sets himself apart with a remarkable ability to seamlessly slip from contemporary to historic times, relating the then with the now in new and refreshing ways. For instance, one recent post reveals that the fancy dress costumes on full and colorful display in the Brexit protests find historical precedence in the Middle Ages, when visual symbolism was key in articulating messages to a largely illiterate public.IMG_1837

The importance, power and symbolism of material culture is at the heart of Wild’s research, and he is especially interested in examining it through the lens of dress. He himself imparts “instant” visual connections to his Instagram followers as potent reminders that there is no today without the past–be it yesterday or one thousand years ago. Wild’s insights are not only refreshing they are thought-provoking and necessary. In a world that lives in the fleeting moment of the disappearing Snapchat story or a fashion industry that dictates the new and the now, Wild’s research is imperative to the changing cultural and social demographics in which we all engage but few take the time to understand. I am thrilled that Wild is the most recent participant in Fashion History Talks!.

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Cultural historian Benjamin Wild

Tell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress. I suppose it would be accurate to describe me as a ‘cultural historian’. My early research – and the subject of my doctoral thesis – focused on the Middle Ages, more specifically the household of Henry III of England (1216-1272). I since have wandered far, chronologically and culturally, from this period, although I always tend to return to it. My most recent book, A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton (London: Thames and Hudson, 2016), was far removed from the medieval period – although, one of my students did point out that the name ‘Sir Cecil Beaton’ would have hardly seemed incongruous in England’s thirteenth-century royal court. In my current book project on fancy dress costume I have returned, in part, to my medieval stomping ground. Broadly, I am in interested how material objects become imbued with meaning and act as potent signifiers of people’s ideas and intentions. Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to work within a variety of institutions, from the Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design to the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, the Royal Academy and the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I have been involved in different forms of teaching. At the moment, I am preparing a short course for the Victoria and Albert Museum, ‘Menswear and Masculinities’, for 2018.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 8.54.31 PMWhy is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? Shakespeare’s remark, via Polonius, that ‘apparel oft proclaims the man’, comes instantly to mind. The phrase has become something of a cliché and, perhaps, diluted through use, but I think it is becoming more apposite. It reminds me that the conception, creation and consumption of the clothes we wear is shaped by the societies we live in. Consequently, I think we need to give time to understand the past if we wish to make sense of clothing in the present. Just think how many recent fashions have been predicated on trends of the past, and I think this reinterpretation, or regurgitation, is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.IMG_1834

It interests me how people (increasingly) use their clothing as a form of psychological salve; styles from the past seem to provide a sense of security and stability that is often absent in the present. As people look to define themselves and their personal relationships (professional and personal) in a period when globalization and technological development have so dramatically transformed the role and meaning of the self in society, the clothes we wear have become more important as a means of conveying our attitudes and intent, even if the meanings they convey are not always clear. To help us make sense of this rich and complex dialogue, we need to look to the past to provide context.

Within the academic community it is (now) something of a bête noire to suggest that clothes help to demarcate social and political relationships – hierarchies, in particular – but I think this has always been a major function of clothing, and is becoming more apparent. Take, for example, those shoppers who clamour for luxury brands to proclaim their affluent status, or those who don fancy dress costumes to protest the perceived failings of government. Think also of the longevity of wardrobe staples like the men’s suit, which in recent years has been enjoying a revival across many demographics. As society becomes ever more fluidic – I am thinking here of Zygmunt Bauman’s writings on ‘Liquid Modernity’ – the clothes we wear are becoming more important as a conduit to communicate with other people, and this often means using garments to convey messages about social, political and economic standing. To understand the messages that people’s clothing choices might be carrying (however intentionally), we have to broaden our analytical framework, and a knowledge of the past is necessary for this.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 9.01.37 PMIn your opinion, is fashion art? I am inclined to fence sit and say, well, it depends on what you mean by ‘fashion’ and by ‘art’, for both concepts are mutable and subjective. If by ‘fashion’ we take a conventional interpretation and refer to a popular trend, then I would say that whilst it has the potential to be art, the overriding importance of relevance probably mitigates against this. Perhaps prior to the mid-twentieth century there was a greater elision between art and fashion, because the conception and creation of clothing, which was still largely framed by what could be produced by hand, meant there was a great deal of skill and labour involved in the manufacturing process. This is not to say that ‘art’ is defined by something that has taken time to produce, but, for me, art does have to be something that has an immediate and lasting affect; I rather like Simon Schama’s idea that art should pack a ‘visceral punch’, I think that was his phrase. The ability for art to have such an impact is likely diminished in the case of fashionable clothing that is, for most people, available quickly and cheaply. In short, I might suggest that for fashion to be considered art, it needs to be cognizant of its cultural context and communicate something meaningful (although not necessarily profound) about this.

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Evening suit owned by the Duke of Windsor, 1938-65, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jacket and vest by F. Scholte, pants by H. Harris.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: I am often asked this question, and I always flounder with an answer. So, for the record: I am not sure that I have a ‘favourite’ fashion designer, of the past or present. Is that heresy for a historian who writes and teaches about dress to say?! The nature of my historical interests means that I am more interested to see how designers engage with the ideas and work of their predecessors, to understand how the past acts to stimulate (or stifle) new creations, than any one designer or design house. It is this dynamic that often inspires my Instagram posts. If I were to name names… at the moment, I am very interested in the work of British designers Sibling (who have just announced that they are winding down their business) and Belgian designer Walter van Beirendonck, for example. However, whilst the work of these designers does appeal to me on an aesthetic level, I am far more excited by the questions and issues their work raises. On a more avowedly aesthetic level, I feel compelled to mention Frederick Scholte, who was largely responsible for innovating the so-called drape style or ‘London cut’ during the 1903s, which enables me to enjoy the fit of my contemporary bespoke suits all the more.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 8.52.10 PMIf you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? Joanne Finkelstein, The Fashioned Self (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991). Some texts are always cited in books and papers that consider the meaning and significance of clothing; others, strangely, are not. This book is one of the latter. I think this is a great shame, for it is one of the few accessible and engaging works to show how sociological and anthropological theory can be usefully incorporated into studies of clothing.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 8.56.44 PM.pngAny current projects? At the moment, my current research is a book for Bloomsbury Academic, Carnival to Cosplay: A History of Fancy Dress Costume. This will be the first academic and book-length study of what is a remarkably prevalent sartorial phenomenon. I would care to bet (not that I am a betting man, you understand) that the majority of people alive today has, or will, don fancy dress costume at some point, regardless of their sex, status or society, however creatively and for however short a period of time. Few forms of clothing are, I think, as universal and exceptional as fancy dress.