Guest Book Review of Fashion, History, Museums: Inventing the Display of Dress by Julia Petrov

By Sarah C. Byrd

Sometimes, a critical history does little more than answer the question of how we ended up here. Julia Petrov’s recent publication, Fashion, History, Museum: Inventing the Display of Dress (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019) on the history of fashion exhibitions (more broadly defined as the display of dress) is not that kind of text. Although Petrov asserts that the book is “not a how-to-guide or reflection on best practice” (p5), this thorough study delivers straightforward information that presents a rich analysis of not just how the practices develop but also why it matters, effectively supplying readers with insights to evaluate curatorial choices in contemporary practice. It is the many subtle “whywe are here” connections that makes the book stand out. However, if you don’t know anything about the history of fashion in exhibitions, you will have a strong foundational understanding after reading Fashion, History, Museum: Inventing the Display of Dress

The book’s objective to define and describe “the varied representations of historical fashion within museum exhibitions in Britain and North America … over the past century” (p2) may appear to be overly grand in scope and exclusively focused at the same time. However, Petrov quickly assuages most of those concerns in the introduction. As anyone involved in fashion studies will know, the terminology is never consistent over time, in different regions, among individuals, or even within institutions. The choice to include fashion and dress in the title speaks to this potential confusion since the two lay in such close meaning. Petrov sets out definitions of fashion – and even the seemingly straightforward use of “historical”– then revisits them in subsequent chapters. A further rationale is provided to explain the use of case studies and overarching methodology, as well as the choice to approach chapters thematically instead of chronologically. The delineations are logical and suggest that a successful critical study will identify specific cases to relate ideas instead of meandering through an endless list of material. Highlights from selected chapters are offered in this review, although each merits a more robust consideration than space allows.

Figure 4.2. Undated postcard showing installation view from an unknown museum; a mannequin in an eighteenth-century dress has been posed alongside contemporaneous decorative arts to demonstrate stylistic continuity. Author’s collection.

Despite its deeply academic approach, the book is clearly written from start to finish, avoiding complex jargon and dense sentence construction. The eight chapters are relatively short, approximately 20-30 pages each, which also aids in the readability. Petrov doesn’t shy away from humor with chapter titles like “Foundation Garments: Precedents for Fashion History Exhibitions in Museums” (Chapter One) and “Window Shopping: Commercial Inspiration for Fashion in the Museum” (Chapter Two), but the content provokes serious reflection. For Instance, “Window Shopping” does much to probe into the relationship between commerce and clothing within the museum. This section successfully demonstrates the important role the fashion industry has had in supporting the creation of collections and exhibition methods. It also acknowledges the reciprocal ways that museums functioned to support designers and promote the industry,  as early as the first call for a fashion museum in the early 18th century. Incredibly, Petrov does not betray any hint of bias towards or against this often-controversial relationship, instead allowing the reader to interpret the information for themselves. However, the issue returns in “Intervisuality: Displaying Fashion as Art” (Chapter Four) and is given more pragmatic discussion.

In “New Objectivity: Social Science Methods” (Chapter Three), Petrov’s layered timeline of case studies emerge as a highly effective format for critical analysis. Examples are pulled from a range of institutions – the familiar Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum are alongside Yeshiva University Museum, The Museum at FIT, the Smithsonian, and many others. That the author expresses familiarity with such a wide assortment of exhibitions is telling in the scope and depth of research backing the text. The effective force of this chapter, though, is how the author’s critiques develop, subtly questioning curatorial intentions before concluding with a powerfully direct assessment.

“To display fashion in this way is to understand it as an expression of society, yet this is all too frequently an unquestioning and superficial reproduction of existing social norms around dress…. These exhibitions perpetuate accepted ideologies, such as capitalism and nationalism, and affirm social rituals, such as monogamy and heterosexuality, as being normative.” (p88)

The precision highlights why a survey of the past is needed to reflect deeply on established practices.

Figure 4.6. Costumes in collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on permanent display in 1939. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Tableaux Vivants: Displaying Fashion as Art” (Chapter Five), “The Body in the Gallery: Revivifying Historical Fashion” (Chapter Six), and “The Way of All Flesh: Displaying the Historicity of Historical Fashion” (Chapter Seven) offer a unified build of ideas that shift greater focus onto exhibition choices and their implications. However, in these sections, more questions are proffered than answered. In discussions of the theater, the most salient comparisons surround the performance of museum labor in exhibition design or staffing (see LACMA’s Fashioning Fashion, 2011, and Oliver Saillard/Tilda Swinton’s Impossible Wardrobes, 2012). In these contexts, the so-called fourth wall is broken. Whether or not this is an effective method to foster awareness of the work behind the scenes, or if it presents an overly idealized version of reality, remains a question. In a complex review of bodies, Petrov briefly acknowledges the issue of race in mannequins, a subject that begs for more critical study. Using pointed examples, such as Benjamin Moore’s “neutral” white paint color (a common choice for displays) and the Caucasian features of many figures, the argument builds to present how ethnic diversity is erased through these choices. “To literally whitewash out the embodied markers of race in order to fit a visual priority is an example of the privileged nature of aesthetics in museum discourse.” (p165) This critique underscores the message of the Museum’s Are Not Neutral campaign* (created in 2017 by LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski) and will be a useful rebuttal for anyone suggesting aesthetics outrank other priorities. The thread of missing content lingers in what parts of history exhibitions choose to present to audiences, with a nod to trends in collecting. She astutely describes the museum as “a place of wish-fulfillment, where the fact of absence is made present only insofar as to make it more poignant.” (p175)

Petrov has written a remarkable resource for the field of fashion studies suitable for both newcomers who will appreciate the abundance of history and references, as well as seasoned practitioners that may see their own work in a different light. She resets the timeline for the first exhibition of fashion, not content to rest on the citations of past scholars. Importantly, Petrov argues for better documentation of the exhibition-making process in order to create a better foundation for more in-depth studies and to legitimize fashion curating. These are weighty topics, and this text should be required reading for those in the field. Thankfully Petrov’s confidence as a writer provides occasional relief though the entertaining discoveries of research, sharing extended quotations from Punch and other wry journalists. Once the chuckle leaves, however, the reader may be left reeling in the realization that the perspective has hardly changed. Therein lies one of the most striking aspects of this book: that the issues that seem to plague every fashion exhibition, from mannequin heads and wigs to gaps in the collection, have been with us from the start. Perhaps with the addition of this book, we can collectively start to sort out solutions.


Sarah C. Byrd is a fashion historian, archivist, and educator. As an archivist, she has worked on a range of projects for both private clients and large corporations including Condé Nast and Ralph Lauren, where she helped develop the menswear archive. Her independent research focuses on early twentieth-century women’s novels and related films, the history of American cults and communes, and the role of exhibitions in education. She holds an MA in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology where she teaches in the Graduate Studies Programs, in addition to NYU Costume Studies MA and the Textile Arts Center.

*https://artstuffmatters.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/changing-the-things-i-cannot-accept-museums-are-not-neutral/

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Weekend Reading: Smithsonian’s 101 Objects that Made America

Marian Anderson’s Fur Coat (1939)

Just a few days ago the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine landed in my mailbox. The entire issue is dedicated to the 101 objects (out of the 137 million in the Smithsonian’s collection) that are the ‘most important’ in American history and culture (arguably, of course). More than a few objects of clothing and textiles made the cut.

Each is accompanied by a small contextual essay and an illustration (usually a photograph of the actual object, but occasionally illustrations are included).

Neil Armstrong's Space Suit (1969)

Some of the essays are written by surprising people. For example, Martha Stewart penned the essay on the Singer Sewing Machine and Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote the essay on her own judges robe.

The essays are available in part or in full online, and grouped by theme: Wild America, Discovery, Voice, Power, Invention, Community, Happiness, America in the World, and Freedom. It’s a good issue and a unique look at the history of the U.S. The weekend’s approach is a good excuse to seek out the issue, sit down and read it (especially those for those with historical leanings).

What articles of clothing would you have included that they left out?

Neil Armstrong’s Space Suit (1969)

Lincoln’s Top Hat (1865)

Marian Anderson’s Fur Coat (1939)

Cesar Chavez’s Jacket (c. 1990)

Justice O’Connor’s Robe (1981)

Lincoln’s Top Hat (1865)

Singer Sewing Machine (1851)

Levi’s Jeans (1873)

Aids Quilt (1987)

Ruby Slippers (1938)

Michael Jordan’s Jersey (1996-97)

Muhammad Ali’s Gloves and Robe (1974)

World War I Gas Mask (1917)

U.S. Olympic Hockey Jersey (1980)

Star Spangled Banner (1814)

 

 

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Historic Costume in California State Parks: Charmian London

Charmian London, ca 1910 (Via California State Parks)

This weekend, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture and tour of Charmian London’s clothing collection at the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, CA – organized through the Western Region of the Costume Society of America.

Jack and Charmian London circa 1911, possibly at Beauty Ranch. (click for source)

Those in attendance were treated to a lecture by Jo Ann Stabb, who conducted an assessment of this collection of over 100 artifacts in 2002-3 for the California State Parks. Several pieces from the collection were on display at the Sonoma Developmental Center, including some lovely theater coats, evening shoes, a lace blouse and an evening dress. The lecture highlighted Charmian’s independent spirit and outgoing nature, and drew links between her wardrobe and the larger fashion world of each era.

Many of the garments in her collection draw strong correlations with the House of Lucille and with Paul Poiret- though it’s not likely that she purchased items from these makers. Jack London’s mother was an accomplished seamstress, as was Charmian herself.

At various times Charmian’s style was inspired by the Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau (especially during her bohemian days in Berkeley and Oakland), and often by her travels abroad with Jack (including trips to Hawaii and the tropics, where she would don Mother Hubbard style dresses and Kimono’s). Japanese, African and other ethnic influences can certainly be found in extant photos and clothing pieces in the collection. Not surprisingly, she had a love of fur – especially trimming hats and garments (reminiscent of Lucille).

The incredibly informative and well attended lecture was followed by lunch and a visit to the Jack London State Historic Park to see the House of Happy Walls (where Charmian’s closets were on view). Park Rangers were on hand to answer our questions, and a park volunteer played music on Charmian London’s piano – much to the delight of the visitors. (For more of my photos from this event, see the gallery at the end)

Charmian London in Berkeley Bohemian attire circa 1909.

What made this event all the more bittersweet was the news that came out last Friday: that the Jack London State Historic Park is one of many on a proposed list of park closures due to a $22 million California general fund budget cut. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, those closures are expected to begin in September and have already been approved by the California Legislature.

It will be the first time in California’s history, including during the Great Depression, that state parks have closed because of budget cuts and parks that remain open also will have reduced services.”

Proposed parks to be cut (Via CSP)

What isn’t obvious to many, is that some of these parks also house historic collections of costumes and textiles (as well as other artifacts) – and access to these collections would also be diminished.  Along with Jack London SP, and close to my heart, the Fisher Hanlon House (a historic home in Benicia Capitol State Historic Park) has a costume collection and would also be closed.

Benicia is my hometown, and my first experience with a historic costume collection was at the Fisher Hanlon House. According to one parks employee “Parks that do end up being closed will be in a caretaker status, and the collections will still be preserved.”  While officials weren’t able to confirm which parks had historic costume and textile collections, they indicated that the Governor’s Mansion and Leland Stanford Mansion both include displays of historic dress. Upon further research, it seems that the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park also has historic costume, and is scheduled to close in September (For a complete list of California collections housing historic costumes and textiles, see Clothing And Textile Collections in the United States: A Csa Guide).

Now if you want to do something to help preserve these collections that are important to California’s History, I’d advise a donation:

Click here to donate to the California State Parks Foundation

Gallery of Photos:

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