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


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.


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!”


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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 9.25.15 AM

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: which is a great reference and free to use.

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 8.05.41 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 8.09.50 PM

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! 


Fashion History Talks!: In conversation with Rebecca Arnold of the Courtauld Institute


Photograph of a woman in a diner in Harlem by Richard Avedon, 1949.

For Rebecca Arnold of the Instagram account @documentingfashion_courtauld, a picture speaks a thousand words. “We can’t know what made her look up,” reads Arnold’s caption for the image above, “only that it means we get a good view of her little hat–its feathers adding a sense of movement and drama to her figure…she is a busy woman taking a break from the city, a uniformed waitress ready for her order.” Covering a wide spectrum of fashion and dress history, Arnold’s insightful commentary accompanies striking and often candid images spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. From Parisian haute couture to the streets of New York City, her daily posts consistently ask us to expand the way we interact with the visual culture associated with the clothing we wear.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-06-42-amIt is easy to look and “like” an image in your Instagram feed, but it is another to stop and truly think about what you are seeing. Arnold uses her Instagram to share with followers the fashion and dress themes that she explores in more detail with her MA students at London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art, where she is the Senior Lecturer in History of Dress and Textiles.  In her course Documenting Fashion, “visual analysis is central to the way fashion and dress history is taught,” she says, and this perspective is central to each of her posts which pair captivating imagery with insightful commentary.

When she is not teaching, Arnold is writing and researching. She has contributed to numerous academic and journalistic projects, curated exhibitions and is currently working on a book Documenting Fashion: Modernity and Image in America, 1920-60. She recently took some time to answer some questions from the Art of Dress.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-05-10-amWhy is the study of fashion history important to you? For so many reasons, it’s hard to summarise – I’ve spent my whole adult life studying, researching, writing, teaching in this field, and it’s an area that I have been fascinated by since childhood. I think fashion/dress is important in and of itself, as a means of self- and group- expression and a crucial part of so many types of histories, from autobiographies, to cultural, social and economic discussions of particular periods or themes. Studying fashion/dress history entails considering who we are and why we clothe ourselves as we do – which is an intense and personal consideration, as well as an academic pursuit. It’s about challenging the material and visual culture of our time and an important way to upend hierarchies that favour white, upper class, heteronormative values. The best fashion, and the best fashion history prompts people to rethink the world around them.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-07-37-amIn your opinion, is fashion art? Can I answer with another question? Why does it need to be, what would that change? I think it’s interesting how persistent this question is. It’s often about traditional hierarchies that place art at the top and fashion at, or very near, the bottom of an imagined scale. In many ways, I would just like to see fashion and fashion history represented, thought about, written about, as important in and of themselves, rather than having to be called art in order to add ‘value.’ Fashion as a term incorporates everything from mass-produced throwaway styles to one off pieces. Yes, some examples can be seen as having equivalent qualities to fine art. And the same applies for fashion’s representation across various media. What I would say is fashion matters, and the last fifty years of scholarship proves that beyond doubt – as does the work of so many designers, illustrators, photographers etc…

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-16-10-amFavorite fashion designer, past and present: Madeleine Vionnet, for her constant experimentation, attention to the body and how it relates to fabric, and for her concern for her workers.

Grace Wales Bonner, for her attention to detail, for her subtle but powerful exploration of gender, sexuality and ethnicity through fashion and its representation, and for the elegance and intelligence of her designs.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-32-36-amIf you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? It’s really impossible to choose just one book – I think that’s the beauty of the subject, it’s so diverse, it doesn’t fit into one text. If you can access the Berg Fashion Library then that is the very best way to start – it covers all periods and countries, and therefore allows you to focus in on your particular interests, as well as reading more widely.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-15-22-amNow that you’ve read this interview, please take some time to explore the thousands of images on Arnold’s Instagram account.  I’ve provided some of my favorite posts below but I was hard-pressed to pick even this small handful, so thought-provoking and inspiring are all of her posts.


Arnold’s posts often relate directly to the themes and subjects explored by her students on their Documenting Fashion blog, found here.

More on Arnold and the program she teaches can be found at the links below: