Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Colleen Hill of The Museum at FIT

“I’ve come to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter if fashion is art. Fashion can simply be fashion – it is beautiful, it is creative, and it is important – and I think that is enough.” –Colleen Hill

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André Courrèges famous “Lunettes Eskimo” sunglasses photographed by William Klein for the March 1, 1965 issue of American Vogue and the cover of Hill’s new book Paris-Refashioned, 1957-1968, a companion to the exhibition at The Museum at FIT of the same name.

I have always been a firm believer in the inherent magic, wonder and awe of fashion–the art of dress, if you will. A dress by Alexander McQueen or Paul Poiret can move me as deeply as a painting by Odilon Redon or Casper David Freidrich. This idea that dress can and should be treated the same way as the most traditionally esteemed forms of art is at the heart of New York City’s The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), one of the few museums in the world dedicated exclusively to exhibiting and celebrating fashion, and the work place of Colleen Hill, Curator of Costume and Accessories, whose latest exhibition Paris Refashioned, 1957-1968 is currently on view until April 15th.

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Donyale Luna photographed by Guy Bourdin in a Paco Rabanne design for Vogue, April 1966.

The 1960s fashion scene is perhaps best captured in one word: Youthquake! A term that immediately evokes dancing, mini-skirted teenagers was coined by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland to describe the rise of young people as fashion authorities in the 1960s. It was a period that witnessed the success of a new generation of British ready-to-wear designers who set the tone for fashion, ousting Paris from its thrown and redefining the very nature of how fashion was made, consumed and worn. A popular narrative perhaps, but one that is not entirely true as Hill reveals in her new exhibition which rightfully positions Parisian designers at the forefront of the 1960s fashion revolution, both as innovators and tastemakers in their own right. From the young ready-to-wear stylistes such as Emmanuelle Khanh and Sonia Rykiel to the upper echelons of the haute couture that included designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and André Courrèges, Paris’ contribution to the 1960s Youthquake is on full display at The Museum at FIT until April 15th.

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A 1966 evening dress by Paco Rabanne currently on display in Paris Refashioned, 1957-1968.

Paris Refashioned is the latest addition to the extensive resume of Hill who, with the museum’s treasure chest of over 50,000 garments and accessories at her fingertips, has authored five books on fashion in addition to curating numerous illuminating exhibitions including Exposed: a History of Lingerie (2014), Sporting Life (2011), His & Hers (2010-11), Eco-Fashion: Going Green (2010), Seduction (2008-9), and most recently, Fairy Tale Fashion (2016), my personal favorite.

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I am delighted to have Hill as the latest participant in Fashion History Talks!

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I.D. (Emmanuelle Khanh), dress, 1966, gift of Sandy Horvitz.

Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? Fashion as a means of self-expression has been important to me since childhood. As I began to study the history of fashion later in life, I became fascinated by how closely fashion relates to identity, politics, sexuality, sociology … I could go on! Fashion’s significance is much deeper than many people realize, and because fashion studies is a relatively young discipline, I find that there’s a vast number of topics that still warrant exploration.

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Chloé (Karl Lagerfeld), evening dress, 1968, gift of Melanie Miller.

In your opinion, is fashion art? The increased presence and acceptance of fashion within museums is a clear indication of fashion’s growing status within the artistic hierarchy. Yet certain major fashion designers – such as Karl Lagerfeld and Miuccia Prada – have distanced themselves from the notion that fashion is art. Although my initial reaction as a budding fashion historian was to disagree with those designers, I’ve come to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter if fashion is art. Fashion can simply be fashion – it is beautiful, it is creative, and it is important – and I think that is enough. I don’t know that it needs to “prove itself” through designation as an art form.

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André Courrèges, boots, 1964, gift of Ruth Sublette.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: My favorite designers for curatorial purposes tend to fluctuate regularly, depending on what project I’m working on. If I am selecting based on my personal tastes (meaning what I would want in my own wardrobe), I would select André Courrèges and Consuelo Castiglione.

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Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, raincoat, 1966, gift of Ethel Scull. 

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? Caroline Evans’s books always prove to be inspirational, especially Fashion at the Edge. I’d also like to mention Joel Lobenthal’s book Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties, which I discovered at my local library when I was a child. It was my first real foray into fashion history – and I still adore 1960s fashion.

The companion book to Hill’s exhibition can be purchased here. 

**I had the pleasure of meeting Hill in 2012 when, as a graduate student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I co-curated an exhibition with Tracy Jenkins entitled Youthquake! The 1960s Fashion Revolution under Hill’s direction.

 

Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Anna Yanofsky of The Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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From ancient Coptic textiles to contemporary haute couture, the historic dress collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a treasure trove of culturally and historically significant pieces. I have spent hours browsing the seemingly endless online database (437,732 items have been digitized to date) and, while I have shared many pieces from the collection with you on my Instagram, there are thousands upon thousands of objects that I have yet to discover!  For most of us, browsing online is the closest we will ever get to examining these exquisite pieces up close. I can only imagine what it would be like to physically handle, examine and research this world-class collection. It is another fantasy entirely to get paid to do it. And yet for Anna Yanofsky, Collections Manager Assistant at the The Costume Institute, dreams really do come true.

The Costume Institute is the name for the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of more than 35,000 costumes and accessories representing “five continents and seven centuries of fashionable dress, regional costumes, and accessories for men, women, and children, from the fifteenth century to the present.” Anna has worked at the Institute since graduating (with me!) in 2012 with her Masters in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, but she has loved fashion ever since she was a young girl. Her passion for the subject is inspiring and I am excited to present her Fashion History Talks! below. Thank you Anna!

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This 18th century robe à la polonaise is one of Anna’s favorite garments in the Costume Institute at The Metropolitant Museum of Art where she works as a Collections Management Assistant.

Please provide readers with a description of your job and how it relates to the history of fashion and dress: My title is Collections Management Assistant in The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In my role I spend a lot of quality time with objects of all shapes, sizes, and kinds. The Collections Team is responsible for the proper storage and care of objects–which involves strategizing the placement of objects within the space we have available, and packing them archivally to suit their needs. Each object presents its own unique challenges based on its materials and structure. In addition we are constantly pulling and presenting pieces for curatorial viewings and conservation treatments.

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Marion Cotillard in Christian Dior by Raf Simons. Photographed by Tim Walker for W Magazine, December 2012.

Why is the study of fashion history important to you? My professional dedication to the study of fashion history is born of a nascent obsession with fashion that I can never remember not having. I may have been the only 8-year-old watching Style with Elsa Klensch on weekend mornings and paying for my copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar with my wadded-up allowance (four dollars because I was in the fourth grade). Fashion magazines were my ticket to an alternate universe of beauty and style. In those magazines I was not only transported through editorials, but I was also reading about art, politics, and culture. As I advanced in my education, I realized that fashion history is the study of so many topics at once: world history, design, materials, technology, sociology, and much more. A fashion object or photograph can educate you fully and deeply about a moment in history, or a culture, or an economic principle. Fashion is an entry point into looking at the world around us in a more profound way. Also, it is accessible. We all get dressed. We all express our identity and place in time and space through the clothes we wear. We are all participating in fashion on some level.

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Grès, Strapless evening dress (detail), Spring/Summer 1964,©Stéphane Piera/ Galleria/ Roger-Viollet from Another Magazine, September 12, 2012.

In your opinion, is fashion art? Some fashion is art; some is not. There are a select few designers who put ideas into clothing and treat fashion as a medium for conceptual communication. And then there are those who sell clothes in a more utilitarian way. Couture as it is traditionally constructed, with the highest attention to skilled craft, is undoubtedly artfully made–but even couture isn’t necessarily art. The complicating factor of this topic is always commerce. Clothes are made to be sold and worn and discarded for something newer and better each season. This leaves many with the perception of it as an impure artform, one created for profit rather than the expression of inspiration and creativity. However, when you see certain garments, there is little denying that they capture the essence of artistic creation as aptly as a painting or sculpture.

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Madame Grès, photographed by Crespi for Femina, April 1949.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Just one? I’ll say that ever since I laid eyes on a garment by Madame Gres I have had an utter fashion history crush on her. The pleating of her dresses is simply extraordinary in person and symbolizes a Classicism

that is eternally chic. Her designs are powerful in such a feminine way. In spite of the flow of the yards of fabric she uses, the tight pleating creates a firm structure–to her bodices especially–that leave them with a protective, almost armor-like quality. The effect is totally dichotomous. She also had a career that spanned decades successfully (from the 1930s to the 1980s), with some of her most interesting designs emerging in the 1970s. I thought that Raf Simons’ interpretation of the Christian Dior aesthetic was so beautiful and modern while still respecting the history of the house. His most recent eponymous menswear collection featured photographs from the Robert Mapplethorpe archives in a very pleasing way. I am a sucker for a photographic print in textile form! I am excited to see how he can revive Calvin Klein.

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Cover of Teen Vogue photographed by Sean Thomas, December 2016.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I know this isn’t a book, but subscribe to Teen Vogue! Their recent coverage of political and social issues has been so incredibly smart. I’ve heard a lot about how shocked people are by the fact that a fashion magazine–geared towards teenage girls, no less–could have such adept coverage of complex issues, but I’m not surprised. My consciousness was raised on fashion magazines. There is no exclusionary binary between a love of fashion and an interest in the complexities of the world. In fact, they are so much more related than people may initially think. A balance of beauty and brains are what we should all be encouraging in each other. Also, subscribing to quality content is so important in this moment. We need to financially support the sources we appreciate.

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The No. 7 issue of the environmentally conscious publication A Green Beauty features Anna’s latest article on fast fashion and can be digitally downloaded here.

 *First image of model Cara Delivigne in Christian Dior Haute Couture by Raf Simons. Photographed by Tim Walker and styled by Edward Enninful for W Magazine, December 2013.