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.

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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: 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! 


The Art of Imitation: Edward Steichen’s Modern Fashion Photographs of 1911

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Edward Steichen photographs, Art et Décoration magazine, April 1911.

The birth of modern fashion photography is often credited to a spread by Edward Steichen featured in Art et Décoration magazine in 1911. However,  surprisingly little, if any, attention is every given to how Steichen took many of his groundbreaking visual cues from fashion illustration, specifically the work of artists Paul Iribe and Georges Lepape in two luxury, limited-edition fashion albums entitled Les Robes de Paul Poiret (1908) and Les Choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape (1911).

Steichen’s photographs, perhaps not surprisingly, are also of the work of the avant-garde couturier Paul Poiret who was always seeking fresh, unorthodox means of marketing his modern fashion designs. Steichen successfully achieved this by allowing mood, atmosphere and artistic license to take precedent over sharply-focused, detailed depictions of the garments for blatant commercial purposes, as was the status quo in fashion photography at the time. Indeed, this was an exciting, new direction for fashion photography… but not illustration, which had undergone a dramatic remapping at the hands of Iribe three years prior.

Illustrations by Paul Iribe in Les Robes de Paul Poiret, 1908.

Illustrations by Paul Iribe in Les Robes de Paul Poiret, 1908.

This fussy, detailed illustration was typical of the medium at the time. La Moda Elegante, 1908.

This fussy, detailed illustration was typical of the medium at the time. La Moda Elegante, 1908.

In Les Robes de Paul Poiret, Poiret granted Iribe complete artistic license in the interpretation of his modern, corset-free gowns, inviting the artist to capture the spirit of his garments versus a detailed, literal interpretation. Any tropes familiar to traditional fashion advertising dissolved at the hands of Iribe: his figures were flat and two-dimensional, his color palette bold and vivid. Iribe’s style was distinctive, taking clear inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints. The use of the laborious hand-stenciling technique known as pochoir to reproduce Iribe’s illustrations ensured that each of the album’s fifty copies retained the painterly qualities of the artist’s original work. When a small selection of Poiret’s affluent clientele received the album as a gift, they were not accepting a traditional catalog of a couturier’s designs, but rather the portfolio of two artists: Iribe and Poiret—or so Poiret would have them believe. “I am not commercial,” Poiret told the New York Times in 1913, “Ladies come to me for a gown as they go to a distinguished painter to get their portraits put on canvas. I am an artist, not a dressmaker.”[i] Poiret was undeniably in the business of selling clothes but his genius, and resulting success, lay in how he sold his clothing, cleverly presenting his designs within a realm traditionally inhabited only by fine artists.

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Les Robes de Paul Poiret, 1908.

Les Robes de Paul Poiret effectively laid the groundwork for the production of Les Choses de Paul Poiret vue Georges Lepape three years later, which possessed many of the same stylistic principals as its predecessor. Together, the two albums validated fashion illustration as an outlet for artistic expression, a dialogue between fashion and art that would inspire an entire generation of artists of the Art Moderne and Art Deco eras. The stylistic influences of Iribe and Lepape (who became a prolific fashion illustrator) were found across the pages of the leading fashion magazines of the day including Gazette du bon ton, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. And, of course, the photography of Edward Steichen.

Les Choses de Paul Poiret vue Georges Lepape, 1911.

Les Choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape, 1911.

Les Choses de Paul Poiret was released only two months prior to Steichen’s photographs, which accompanied an article entitled “The Art of Dress” in the magazine Art et Décoration. (The fact that it was an architecture and interior design—not fashion—magazine, is yet another example of Poiret’s non-traditional marketing strategy at work.) The article begs a comparison between Lepape and Steichen almost immediately, opening with a Lepape illustration of a Poiret jupes-culottes (literally “skirt-pant”) followed a few pages later by a Steichen photograph of the same ensemble. The models are posed in the same way, in the same clothing, but the backgrounds, though both in Poiret’s salons, are different. And yet which came first? I posit that it was indeed the Lepape illustration, as the Art et Décoration article already insinuates, but further comparisons provide the more conclusive evidence that Steichen indeed found inspiration for his revolutionary photographs in Lepape’s illustrations.

“L’Art de la Mode” or the “Art of Dress” article, Art et Décoration, April 1911.

First, we must consider the stylistic elements of Les Choses de Paul Poiret that were worth imitating. In the album, Lepape, like Iribe before him, invites the viewer into an intimate world inhabited by contemplative, fashionable beauties. They walk in and out of frame with ease, lounge on pillows and in chairs with languor. It is a romantic, enticing world in which Lepape has placed less emphasis on any specific detailing of the clothing and more on the mood, beauty, and emotions that their presence evokes in their wearers. Similarly, Steichen invites the viewer into a low-lit, private domain inhabited by Poiret’s magnetic mannequins. But this time, the women in Steichen’s revery are real, and decidedly more aware of their audience, occasionally staring directly at the camera acknowledging our gaze. The models are none-the-less contemplative of their surroundings, however, nor of their beauty. Hazy lighting enhances the sultry nature of their features and each scene, many in which the models appear mesmerized with themselves, staring at their garments or reveling in their reflection in the mirror.


Steichen followed Lepape’s lead on more than just mood and setting. He also mirrored many of the artist’s compositions and poses, as demonstrated below. But as imitative of Lepape’s style as Steichen’s photographs are, they do reveal something only Lepape could insinuate, and that is the realities of Poiret’s designs on the human form. Lepape uses the straight, columnar silhouette of Poiret’s gowns to enhance the statuesque qualities of his figures, but he completely negates even a suggestion at the natural body that exists beneath. These are qualities left to be discovered by Steichen’s lens, found in subtle but equally beautiful ways.

Despite the obvious change in medium, Steichen’s successfully imbues his photographs with the same romantic, meditative notions as Lepape’s illustrations, albeit it in a more muted color palette and, quiet literally, in a more realistic way. But both are exquisite testaments to the Art of Dress.

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**All images in this article were sourced from the Special Collections and FIT Archives of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City where the Art et Décoration issue, Les Robes de Paul Poiret and Les Choses de Paul Poiret reside. 

[i]9.21 “Paul Poiret Here to Tell of His Art” (NYT), 11