Should These Clothes Be Saved?
Thousands of articles of regular girls’ garb are being preserved in lockers in a college basement. But wherein, precisely, does their cost lie?
It is viable that one of the more telling narratives of ladies’ lives in 20th-century America is housed in 50 metal storage lockers in a basement room in the theater department of a ladies’ college in Northampton, Mass. There, an anthropological street map lines the story from Gibson ladies to the Western Front to the Dust Bowl to bringing home the bacon and onward.
To attain it, you descend a flight of stairs and skip via a cinder block hall right into a windowless area this is home to the unofficial Smith College Historic Clothing Collection: 3,000 attire, suits, shoes, luggage, and accessories. They are filled amongst gown racks and cardboard boxes, jammed together on padded hangers, stacked on cabinets and squirreled away in any to be had corner and cranny.
Though the collection includes a few dressmaker names (Claire McCardell, Mary Quant) and some garments that belonged to famous human beings (Sylvia Plath’s Girl Scout uniform), most people have unknown origins and can be stained, torn, mended and otherwise unsuitable in a few manner that reflects the exigencies of actual lifestyles: households, duty, difficulty.
They are the types of clothes usually omitted or dismissed by using museums and creditors to getting dressed, who generally tend to attention on style as an expression of elitism, artistry, aspiration.
Other schools and universities keep fabric and apparel collections, which includes Drexel and Iowa State, but Smith’s cognizance on women’s apparel and, extra specially, on ladies’s “social uniforms” — clothing that signifies identity and features as a part of the archaeology of gender, entire with usage markers — units it apart.
“It’s not about couture,” stated Jan Glier Reeder, a style historian who turned into a curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute display on Charles James in 2014. (She is likewise a Smith graduate.) “It’s about how we examine the past in a very intimate way.”
How a whole lot is that certainly really worth? As the destiny of the collection becomes a subject of discussion inside the college, it has stirred up uncomfortable questions about what constitutes “free” in the context of garments, the liberal arts, and the cutting-edge communication approximately how we talk about women’s records. Even at an organization like Smith: an esteemed girls’ college and the alma mater of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.
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In 1974, Catherine Smith, a graduate of the college and a costume designer, returned as a professor inside the theater department. When she began sifting via the costumes used in productions, she found that a lot of them have been historical garments donated by means of alumnae.
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Ms. Smith, who goes by way of the call Kiki, began keeping apart out those pieces that were too fragile or had been doubtlessly essential — 1895 traveling in shape, as an instance — from the obvious costumes (Shakespearean monk’s robes).
It came about to her, she said, that whilst such clothes are typically no longer seen as precious, in terms of providing clues to what it meant to be a woman in twentieth-century America, they will be well worth their weight, if not in gold, at least in semiprecious gems.
“We have libraries of books, which are very precious,” Ms. Smith said, noting that just as the university collects and preserves artwork and prints, as well as files like diaries, yearbooks, and letters, the clothes can be visible as “journals into women’s lives from the past.” “My feeling is, that’s a totally precious commodity to store, and to have for the future.”
Yet, said Valerie Steele, the director and leader curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, traditionally garments have now not been visible as such.
“Old clothes, in general, are so tied to the frame, and woman bodies particularly, that they’ve now not been valorized as objects, like artwork, which had been visible as examples of male genius,” Ms. Steele stated. “They had been more like rags that had lived on past their time.” (The museum at F.I.T. Sees its venture as collecting portions which are “traditionally or aesthetically large inside the records of fashion.”)
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Generally, when building gown collections, the maximum famous museums not dedicated simply to fashion or textiles — the Metropolitan, the Victoria and Albert — appearance to portions described as “extraordinary” and “main.” That is garments or textiles that talk to the ornamental arts, or moments of tremendous historical importance, in place of the quotidian nature of normal existence.