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Fashion Archives in Chicago

Multicolored tie-dyed silk cape by Liberty & Co., circa 1921. Gift of Wendy Fisher, 1986.680.1. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum
Multicolored tie-dyed silk cape by Liberty & Co., circa 1921. Gift of Wendy Fisher, 1986.680.1. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum
Multicolored tie-dyed silk cape by Liberty & Co., circa 1921. Gift of Wendy Fisher, 1986.680.1. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum
Written by
Centre for Fashion Curation
Published date
01 March 2018

    Anna Buruma, curator for the Museum & Study Collection at Central St. Martins, (CSM) and Archivist at Liberty, received a Refresh grant from the university to visit the three different fashion collections in Chicago to learn about how staff dealt with their collections. The Fashion Resource Center (FRC), part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and the Fashion Study Collection, (FSC) at Colombia College are both teaching collections, while the visit to the Chicago History Museum was inspired by their collection of Liberty garments, and Anna’s special interest in that subject.

    Here, Anna reflects on the three collections, and the differences between the teaching collections and those in a ‘proper’ museum.

    Museums and study collections attached to colleges and universities are there mainly to assist students and teachers in their teaching and learning. The expectations of students to be able to examine closely the dress and textiles in these collections will therefore be slightly different from those in other museum collections. Consequently the museum at CSM is increasingly involved with object-based learning as a meaningful way into the collection, where looking, touching and even smelling an object is as important an aspect as knowing the history of it, but always with the greatest of care for the preservation of that object. Central Saint Martins has an accredited museum that is open to the public, even though it is primarily a study collection and there is no permanent exhibition space.

    The Fashion Resource Center (FRC), run by Gillion Carrara and Caroline Bellios, have a handling collection of over 800 late 20th- and 21st-century designer garments and accessories. Their concern is that students should experience a very direct interaction with the object rather than worry about the object suffering damage from this practice as they need to continually refresh their collection anyway. They concentrate particularly on fashion with an avant-garde bias towards design and construction and it includes a strong selection of work by Belgian and Japanese designers. FRC holds teaching sessions for groups as well as supporting students and researchers coming in on an individual basis. The latter are able to go into the area where the garments are stored unsupervised and are encouraged to handle them. The collection also has a large reference library and an almost complete collection of American Vogue. In order to remain up to date with what is new in fashion design, items in the collection are replaced on a regular basis with donations as well as purchases through auction, with some very interesting garments coming through eBay. Interestingly the Fibre students (textile design) don’t use the collection at all, which is surprising because not only are many of the garments made of interesting materials, FRC also have a fabric reference library.

    Columbia College of Chicago has both graduate and undergraduate programmes in performance, dance, film, media and art history and offer BA or BFA in fashion design and fashion business.  The Fashion Study Collection at Columbia, which is managed by Jacqueline Wayne Guite, was started in 1989 and has over 6000 items, including designer garments, historical dress (with the greatest number of items dating from the 1970s to the 1990s) and ethnic dress. It supports teaching and learning across disciplines by looking at dress and its relationship to history, culture, art, design, business and technology. The fashion collection includes European and Japanese design, but is particularly strong on American design.

    Although it is not an accredited museum, the collection is kept in museum conditions, in a large climate controlled storeroom. The collection has an online database with images for some of the garments. Students are usually asked to wear gloves, but there are occasions when they need to able to handle the objects in which case they are asked to wash their hands. FSC receives donations and also have funds available to buy, with two of their more recent purchases being a Mary Katrantzou top and skirt from her spring summer 2014 collection and a paper fibre Delpozo coat from spring summer 2015. FSC has a fairly busy programme of exhibitions in the foyer of their building.

    On the same visit at Columbia College, I was also shown the Efroymson Art + Design Resource Center, The Center is in a modern room with beanbag seating, wooden tables with white chairs and shelving with books, journals and resource materials related to art and design. Products include anything from a Hello Kitty toaster to Lady Gaga perfume to a wind up radio. Students and staff are encouraged to use this space for research, studying or just chatting to each other. Apparently despite everything being on open shelves, not much gets lost due to it being policed by the students who use the space on a regular basis.

    At The Chicago History Museum, curator Petra Slinkard  showed me their collection of Liberty garments, which includes capes and cloaks as well as a shawl and a 1930s dress. Many of these would have been bought by rich Chicago ladies on their trips to Europe. Because it is a history museum, the provenance of the garments is much more important than with the other collections. Not all the Liberty garments have a complete history, but a number of them do, including a brightly coloured silk cloak, which has an abstract tie-dye pattern. It was bought at Liberty by the grandmother of the donor to wear as an evening wrap on board the liner she took back to America in 1923.

    This is an accredited museum and therefore has strict rules on handling the objects. They are kept in climate controlled storage and visitors are allowed to look but not touch. The Chicago History Museum obviously aims at a much wider audience and is comparable to the Museum of London here. They do have visits from students, but that is not their main focus. The museum is particularly concerned about reaching out to local communities and while I visited the exhibition spaces, there were several school groups. They have a regular programme of exhibitions and the dress collection is called upon to provide objects. At the time of my visit, Petra was busy preparing for a Mainbocher (a Chicagoan) exhibition in October and there were several objects from the dress collection on display in the various themed exhibitions.

    Some of the collections I visited were larger than the CSM museum  and on the whole seemed better resourced.  But the main remit for all of them, as with ours, is to engage and to educate. The two college collections are aiming particularly at the students of the colleges they are attached to and The Refresh grant made it possible for me to get out into the big wide world and to see my work from a different perspective. To have met and to be able talk face to face with colleagues who share the same concerns is immensely valuable.