Michelle Tolini Finamore, M.A., Museum Studies: Costume History ’98
First of all, congratulations on your recent appointment as Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston! Tell us what a typical day is like working in this role.
Well, like most people, I often get in and start checking email, and being a curator entails much more administration than my previous positions, i.e. a lot more meetings! Yet there are so many fascinating aspects to the job. I regularly interact with collectors who are enthusiastic about what they are collecting, I develop exhibition proposals, I work on building our 20th and 21st century fashion collection, and help with our Fashion Council, which is a group of fashion enthusiasts who support our department. Sometimes I veer off into directions I would not expect. Thanks to a very generous donor, the MFA is now the repository of the life’s work of English designer John Bates and I am working on a chapter for a book that revolves around his creation of Diana Rigg’s catsuit in the 1960s television show The Avengers.
I also want to mention that I’m thrilled to work alongside two fellow FIT alumni: Pam Parmal, who received her M.A. in 1987, is the head of our Textile & Fashion Arts department and Lauren Whitley, who also got an M.A. in Museum Studies: Costume & Textile history in 1992, is curating the Hippie Chic exhibition that opens on July 2, 2013 and closes November 11, 2013.
Did you always envision yourself working in a museum?
I knew that I wanted to study art history from a relatively early age and my first undergraduate internship landed me in the costume and textile department at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. That experience opened my eyes to the idea that art history encompassed the entire visual world, from imagery to objects to what people wear. One of my projects was to help catalogue an early twentieth-century dress shop collection and I spent hours upon hours poring over a wonderfully rich time capsule of clothing, 1920s beadwork, and gorgeous French textiles. I knew then that this was something I could do forever.
What made you want to pursue graduate studies at FIT?
I studied Western art history as an undergraduate and decided to pursue graduate studies because I knew I was passionate about fashion history, yet could not find coursework on the subject. FIT was the perfect fit for me in many ways because it provided the history classes I was seeking and practical training on how to handle and “read” objects. While there I had internships at the Costume Institute and held jobs at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum at FIT, and then went on to various jobs including one as a fashion specialist in Sotheby’s Fashion Department. I then decided to attend the Bard Graduate Center for my Ph.D. in decorative arts and design history and continued to work in the museum field. And now, I am at the MFA in what I consider my dream job.
What was your favorite course or professor at FIT?
That is an easy one – Valerie Steele and all of her courses were the most inspiring to me. Not only because they were directly related to my interest in 20th century fashion but also because her balance of cultural history, material culture, and fashion theory was presented with such enthusiasm and intelligence.
What resources at FIT did you most value?
In addition to professors like Valerie and Desiree Koslin, I valued the remarkably rich costume and textile collection at the Museum at FIT. Learning directly from objects makes the abstract concepts more tangible. When I was teaching design history at RISD, I always included regular trips to the museum collection there, and the students always told me those were the most memorable classes for them. The Special Collections in the Gladys Marcus library are yet another treasure trove at FIT and I have returned there for research time and again.
You’ve worked on very interesting exhibits, such as Driving Fashion: Automobile Upholstery of the 1950s and Cocktail Culture. Is there a particular era or topic that fascinates you most?
That is a hard question. I had such fun with Cocktail Culture, which encompassed the entire 20th century, because so many of my interests crystallized in that show. I made a concerted effort to present how clothing fit into the larger social and cultural context and relished the challenge to integrate decorative arts, fashion photography, fashion, and illustration to communicate the exhibition ideas. That said, I have a soft spot for the 1910s-1920s and much of my own research has focused on that era.
What other exhibits or projects do you have in the works?
I have a couple of exhibitions I would like to do that have yet to be approved, but our department will be opening Hippie Chic in the Fall of 2013, and we are currently working with the designers Isabel and Ruben Toledo for an exhibition of their work in Fall of 2014. I’m also working on my next book, Hollywood Before Glamour: Fashion in American Silent Film (Palgrave, 2013). It is an offshoot of my dissertation and a cultural investigation of fashion in early twentieth century cinema. The book is the result of ten years of archival research, film viewing, and writing, so I am thrilled at the prospect of seeing it in print.
Tell us what you find most interesting about the cultural and social forces that shape fashion.
There are so many aspects I find fascinating about fashion, but perhaps most compelling is that fashion can simultaneously express a wearer’s inner dreams, hopes and desires and reflect the larger cultural aesthetic ideas of the external world. There are not many media that can do this and, because we all wear clothing, we all participate in this phenomenon in some way.
What is the earliest memory you have of a museum experience?
My most important memory of a museum experience is actually at my current place of employment – the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. When I was a teenager my parents took me to see the blockbuster Renoir exhibition there and that show quite literally changed the direction of my life. I was so inspired by the beauty of those paintings, I became obsessed with art history from that point onward.
What have been some of your favorite exhibits?
Alexander McQueen was a watershed fashion exhibition on so many levels but I particularly liked the way the exhibition design reflected his creative energy and communicated his conflicted, yet brilliant mind. And those clothes! The exhibition on Wiener Werkstatte designer Dagobert Peche at the Neue Galerie was another that similarly captured the energy of the artist and was beautifully installed. Others that pop into my mind include Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim and the Ruben and Isabel Toledo exhibition at the Museum at FIT in 1998. It was a wonderful melding of fashion and illustration. That was my introduction to their work and I have been a fan ever since…so I feel like having an exhibition of their work at the MFA is like coming full circle. All of these stand out as memorable and dynamic installations that challenged the way I think about exhibiting art.
What was the best advice you received that you’d like to share with peers and current students?
When I was in college one of my dear friends sent me this, by Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”