Among the cringe-worthy capitalizing on alternative lifestyles and incessant branding that permeates the fashion industry, it’s difficult to carve out a public forum to discuss the cultural, political and intellectual importance of what we wear. But the director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, Valerie Steele is doing a good job as one of the few public personas who speak openly about the importance of clothing and adornment.
With dozens of shows under her belt, including Love & War: The Weaponized Woman, an exploration of armor and military inspirations in overtly feminine womenswear, and Japan Fashion Now, which examined Japanese subcultural style and its effect on Western Society, she helms an impressive movement of intellectualizing fashion. In the fall blockbuster of New York’s largest (and only) museum dedicated to the history of fashion, Steele partnered with style icon Daphne Guinness for a show centered on her aesthetic presentation.
I caught up with Steele in the final throes of the exhibition planning to discuss the convergence of art and fashion, Daphne Guinness, and the future of the museum.
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Alexander Cavaluzzo: I wanted to begin with your thoughts on the relationship between fashion and art, and whether you consider fashion an art form.
Valerie Steele: Well, fashion is usually thought of as being a system involving the production and consumption of clothing and images of clothing and meanings related to clothing, so it tends to be seen more as a business (albeit a creative business) and as a part of everyday life.
Art is generally conceived as being a separate kind of system where you have the production of artists who produce art. There are certain categories of art that everybody recognizes as art: Old Master paintings, Classical music and things like that.
Then there are other categories that were contested for a long time like jazz or cinema or photography. And increasingly over time they became accepted as being art fields. I would say that at this moment in time fashion may be in the process of being redefined as art, but there is by no means a consensus that fashion is art. For a start, many fashion designers flatly deny that fashion is art, and these range from Karl Lagerfeld to Miuccia Prada to Rei Kawakubo — some of the most talented people in the field.
So if you have the practitioners saying, “What I do is not art,” then it’s difficult for those outside to say, “Well, what do you know? We’ve decided it’s art.” Although there are many people who are beginning to suggest that fashion — at least avant-garde or haute couture fashion — could be considered art, there’s no consensus yet.
AC: What role do you think the museum plays in legitimizing fashion as an art?
VS: The fact that fashion’s increasingly shown in museums has contributed to the beginnings of a dialogue about whether fashion should be perhaps redefined as art. I think the museum has a very important role because we’re used to thinking of things that are in museums as art, even if they weren’t originally created as art. So lots of ritual objects, for example from Africa or Oceania, were not originally created as art. They were part of ritual and daily life. But now they’ve been redefined as art. So the fact that a Balenciaga ball gown was originally made by a “couturier” and not an “artist,” someone who was trained in haute couture and sold it to a lady to wear, that original function does not necessarily trump all later definitions.
AC: Your journal, Fashion Theory, was the first scholarly publication on the topic of fashion. How did that begin and what do you think its significance is?
VS: The first issue came out in 1997 and it’s still going. Back then there were very few people who were working on fashion in a scholarly way. I got my doctorate in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History from Yale in 1983, and I had a real epiphany during my first term in 1979 when I realized I could study fashion since it’s a part of culture, which all my professors thought was a really bad and stupid idea. And in professional terms they were right, because I couldn’t get a real job as a professor because no regular history department regarded fashion as a valid field of study.
But I knew that around the world there were scholars who were working on this kind of thing, and there wasn’t any journal that would publish their works-in-progress or a chapter of their books-in-progress. So after I had graduated, I was at a conference and was approached by a very dynamic publisher at Berg who asked me if I’d be on her advisory board for choosing which books to publish. And I agreed, but I added that very few scholarly books are published in this field and you’re going to lose out to other publishers like Yale University Press and so on, so what you really need to do is a journal because that doesn’t exist. So she went back and crunched some numbers and said, “Right! And you can be the editor.” So that was how it started, and it’s been very gratifying.
Even in the first year of its publication, there was this graduate student at Columbia who was told by her professors that she couldn’t do her PhD on fashion. And then she brought in the first issue of Fashion Theory and waved it around saying, “Look! There’s a scholarly journal. That proves it’s a valid topic.” And her professors backed down, and I was asked to be on her dissertation committee, and now she’s published three books. So the journal helped establish a modern field of fashion studies instead of the antiquated “History of Costume” that preceded it.
AC: So do you feel the field of fashion studies has really opened up now?
VS: It’s opened up and there’s definitely more things to do with it, and you have big stars now like Caroline Weber at Columbia University, but she did get her doctorate in French Literature, so it was only later that she published about Marie Antoinette’s clothes. There are places in Stockholm, Central St. Martin’s in London, Sydney; there are a handful of places that will offer you a PhD in sort of fashion studies, but I think still, because it’s an interdisciplinary field, it doesn’t have any home in the academy.
AC: How do you think fashion works in constructing our identity? In the case of Guinness, she’s almost completely definable by what she wears.
VS: Fashion and adornment in general as a sort of larger field definitely is related cross-culturally to identifying the wearer.
In traditional societies you’re usually identified according to a category like you’re a married woman versus a single woman, you’re a member of this tribe versus that tribe. In early modern society it tended to be, this is aristocratic dress, this is urban middle class dweller dress, this is peasant dress.
Nowadays you’re identified not just by class or ethnicity or religion, let alone marital status, but rather by different tastes and interest groups. So if you’re into Hip-Hop you’re wearing Hip-Hop-related clothes, if you consider yourself a fashionista you’re wearing certain types of clothes, if you see yourself as a businessman you’re wearing certain kinds of clothes. So, it does provide information, but that information now is more free-floating than it was in the past.
And Daphne, of course, you don’t look at her and say, “Okay, she’s an English aristocrat.” You don’t read her that way, instead you read her in terms of her individual personality and taste level and how she creates a particular personal style. And I think that she’s quite inspiring for people who love fashion; I think of her as the fashion person’s fashion person because she so clearly loves and respects fashion as a craft and, if you will, as an art. She’s also not a “muse” of a particular designer, she’s very much a creative individual in her own right.
AC: How did you decide to center an exhibition around Daphne Guinness?
VS: Two years ago I met Daphne and, within an hour of meeting her I said, “Could you do a show with me?”
Although I’d seen pictures of her prior to our meeting, she struck me then as being such an amazing fashion person. And, you know, we have many exhibitions about designers, but there have been relatively few exhibitions about individuals of great personal style. We did one at FIT years ago on Tina Chow, which was very beautiful, but it’s been a long, long time since we’ve done one, and Daphne seemed to me to be the perfect person to do it on. She’s not professionally part of the fashion system, so it’s not like doing an editor or a stylist or model.
There have been discussions about whether we should do a Kate Moss show, but that’s somewhat different because then you’re really part of the system whereas Daphne is a free individual.
AC: What went into the curation process for this show? Did you and Daphne have separate roles or was it a more open collaboration?
VS: It was very much an open collaboration. She’s very well organized, so most of her clothes were already documented with photographs and metadata on a computer program. So the first thing I did was request that information from her and print it out, and then my colleague Fred Dennis [senior curator of Costume at The Museum at FIT] and I went through and picked out our first choices.
Then Daphne came down and we showed her our choices and she’d say, “Oh, yes, this one’s better than that one” and “We can add this to that one” and then I started making the first of many, many visits to her New York closets and also one spectacular visit to her London apartment where she has a big room entirely filled with racks containing her couture and other high fashion looks.
So we started choosing more things, and because she doesn’t wear the same designer head-to-toe, I would say, “I love this Lacroix jacket, but what did you wear with it?” And she would say, “I wore it with this blouse, and these pants, I’d style it this way.”
So it was a matter of, could we get those pants? And when we’d get them she’d come in and style it herself. So it was very much a collaborative process. And I kept adding additional things, I’d find pictures of her and we’d put them in the book that she and I authored together, and I’d show her the picture and ask if she still had what she was wearing. So we kept adding things and kept editing looks, and it’s been a dynamic and constantly evolving process.
AC: So not every look is a complete reconstruction of an outfit she has worn?
VS: No, in fact we didn’t even go into it with recreation in mind. If she wore a whole look, like there’s a wonderful McQueen jacket she wore over a Lacroix dress and of course I circled that jacket and we ended up using the dress because she had it, but we didn’t so much recreate looks as look at individual pieces and ask, “How would you wear this?” The clothes range from over the past 15 years, but the exhibition is very much about how she’d style and wear the clothes now.
AC: Guinness bought Isabella Blow’s entire wardrobe in 2010. Are there any plans for those to be included?
VS: No, because that’s not a part of her personal style. She bought that collection to preserve it in its entirety, not as something for her to wear.
AC: So she’s never worn any piece of Blow’s?
VS: If she has, it’s been one or two things, but only I think very, very rarely. She didn’t buy them for that purpose. And many of them are very fragile; Isabella wore them really hard. It might be a future show possibly, but it’s not part of this show.
AC: Guinness has spoken about her admiration of armor, as well as her proclivity for wearing armor-inspired clothing. Do you find this metaphorical?
VS: She’s quite explicit about the symbolism of that: the armor is protection. That’s a whole section in the show!
AC: Why do you think the style icon is important?
VS: One amazing quote Daphne said was, she said she looks around and everyone seems to be wearing the Mao uniform. It’s all cookie-cutter looks and she says we should be flying the flag for individuality and I think that’s what’s inspiring about her. And it sometimes, you know, is dismissed as eccentricity, but I think it’s really individuality. And that’s ultimately what the core of fashion is about; it shouldn’t be just about trends and dicta coming down from above, like, “Think Pink” this season or whatever.
And a style icon inspires designers, of course, you can see why designers love to have Daphne wear their clothes because she looks better in them than the models do, and she takes it off the runway into reality. But I also think she’s an inspiration to everybody who loves fashion, because then they realize you can have the freedom to be brave and be unconventional and wear something that’s different.
AC: What future projects are you working on for the museum?
VS: I’m doing a big show with Fred for 2013 on Queer Style, which I believe is super-important. I can’t believe it hasn’t already been done as a museum show, because it’s such an obvious and great topic. It explores how gays and lesbians have had such a huge impact on fashion, both through Queer subcultures and as individuals.
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Daphne Guinness opens at the Museum at FIT on September 16 and runs through January 7, 2012. Accompanying the exhibition will be a catalogue, also titled Daphne Guinness, written by Valerie Steele and Daphne Guinness, and published by Yale University Press. All royalties from sales of the book will benefit the Fashion Institute of Technology.