Notes from a Fashion Museum

IMG_6098.jpgIt’s a busy morning at the coffee shop. Baristas parade past, delivering food to patrons. One has tattoos up and down his legs and arms, maroon shorts that hit mid-thigh and a grey v-neck t-shirt complementing a full beard, and round-turtle shell glasses. A woman with big gold-hooped earrings sits hunched over notes, scribbling. She’s wearing dark skinny jeans, a long, loose, men’s style collared white shirt with wide black stripes and chunky brown sandals. Another woman walks her dishes to the counter wearing neon-pink tennis shoes and matching athletic shorts; a simple, moisture wicking t-shirt and a headband finish her ensemble. In line for coffee, a man leans against the counter in leather work boots, a blue plaid flannel, baggy jeans, and a baseball cap. The variety of fashion is seemingly endless, yet, everyone wears bottoms, everyone wears a top. Every single patron and barista has shoes on. While there’s a great amount of diversity in what we wear, we all still adhere to some code of clothing conduct. We all know what is acceptable, and comfortable, to wear in public.

It’s been almost 8 months since I left my job at a museum focused on historic fashion. I miss the small and friendly staff, free weekends and museum shenanigans. My experience at the Fashion Museum was incredibly educating in terms of historic dress, but also in terms of how we examine and understand our past.

Tarkhan Dress, around 3,000 BCE

It is first important to note that fashion and textile has a particular nuance because historical garments are notoriously unstable. Humidity, various gasses, molds, pests, water: all can do incredible and irreversible damage to a garment. For these reasons, obtaining historical garments from humid environments older than the mid-1700s is rare. (The oldest preserved garments on record are from ancient Egypt, which has a very dry and arid climate.) It is even more unlikely to obtain intact examples of clothing worn by lower and middle class individuals for whom it was necessary to frequently altar and reuse garments. Therefore, the most well preserved examples of historic fashion pre-1920s are those for the wealthy and privileged.


I was surprised to learn, however, that garments of any moderate quality from the 1920s onward are abundant. Mass produced clothing became popular during the early twentieth century, making fashionable garments more accessible to a wider swath of the population. Additionally, the 1920s wasn’t that long ago. Many people have grandparents who were born in the twenties and therefore still have garments – wedding dresses in particular – passed down from generation to generation.

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Wedding Ensemble, 1879 and dress, 1885-89 both from the Kent State University Museum collection.

I learned Americans are entranced by the allure of historic garments. Whether due to movies with heaving bosoms or America’s own lack of a true aristocratic elite, we can’t get enough of tightly bound corsets and dashing coattails. While working at the Fashion Museum, I frequently encountered members of the public who were downright obsessed with the minutia of dress. Questions like, “did Victorian dresses have three buttons down the front or two?” By listening to the Curator and working with the garments myself, I learned that historic dress is much like modern dress: there is a wide variety in what people wear. There are common trends and acceptable fashions now, just as there were one hundred years ago. For example, until the 1920s, it was extremely unusual to see a woman in public in breeches or pants, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Similarly, while a high-necked, wasp-waisted, narrow skirt with a big-bottom-bustle, might typify the late 19th century, the range in these garments from details, fabrics, and even silhouette is truly endless.

From this, I realized we shouldn’t pigeonhole cultures and histories into one exact uniform; it restricts the understanding that, though expectations and limitations may have been in place, humans of the past were just as varied and complex as humans of the present.

I also discovered there is a wide misconception that curators of historic garments try on the clothes. Under no circumstance would a museum worker ever endeavor to wear the garments in the collection. Namely, the garments are artifacts. Humans are dirty. I’ve seen the historic armpit stains to attest that human bodies are not the ideal environment for preserving textiles. Much like you don’t run your grubby, greasy hand across the delicate surface of a painting, you don’t expose a garment to any unnecessary and damaging oils. Also, as is so frequently pointed out, these garments are tiny. Waists sometimes measure 14 inches with heights barely brushing five feet. Even if one were to disregard the integrity of their museum practice to put on a dress, it would be nearly impossible.

Mostly, I learned that like art, fashion trends and anomalies are often reflections of socio-political shifts, and in some cases, directly influence those changes. Fashion, I came to realize, is incredibly important. What we wear individually, and as a society, can offer immense insight into our social climate.

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