Influencers at FIT – Valerie Steele

Here at FIT we have a vast resource at our fingertips: the Museum at FIT (located below the Gladys Marcus library). In addition to the numerous exhibitions held every year, students also have access to the study collection where garments, accessories and textiles can be seen up close.  Valerie Steele is the curator of the Museum, a prolific fashion academic, and the editor of the journal Fashion Theory. I sat down with Ms. Steele to discuss her impressive history as well as the museum’s past and future:

Credit: Aaron Cobbett

Credit: Aaron Cobbett

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication


Since this interview is for the Admissions Blog, I wanted to ask you a little about your own education. What did you find most helpful about your university education?

Hmm…well, I’ve never been asked that before. I guess that the most important thing I learned, both as an undergraduate at Dartmouth and a graduate student at Yale, was how to do research–learning how to use primary research. I know when I used to teach in the graduate school here at FIT, that was something I pounded into the students, the difference between primary and secondary research. That was something I thought was especially important.

You said that while getting your PhD the study of fashion was really vilified. Being here in New York, which is one of the “big four” fashion capitals, and also being here at FIT one of the best design schools, it may seem like this has passed, but do you think there has actually been change outside of this bubble?

Well, I think fashion is much more accepted as a field of serious study. There are many more people around the world working on articles, books and exhibitions about fashion. On the other hand, there are still very few places that offer a doctorate in fashion studies. It is still very much an interdisciplinary field. So, if you want to go ahead and study fashion you still have to think, “Will I be in an art history department or history or cultural studies? Where can I find someplace to study that?”

And you never studied museum-ology or museum theory, so was it difficult to transition from academic writing to more creatively focused exhibitions?

It’s interesting you should ask that. My doctorate is in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History, but I did every single class, except one, and my dissertation in the history of fashion. When I started teaching in the graduate school at FIT, it was in what was then the Museum Studies Costume and Textiles Department, now it is called Fashion and Textiles Studies: History, Theory and Museum Practice. So I was teaching fashion history, but within the framework of a museum studies program. Obviously it was exciting and new to actually be putting on exhibitions here. That was a big thrill. It is not that different from the kind of research you do for putting together a big article or a book. In fact, all my big exhibitions here are accompanied by a book as well, so it is the same kind of research procedure.

In that same vein, who do you see as the audience of the Museum at FIT, and how do you pique their interests?

Well, our audiences are multiple. Obviously the FIT community is one of our core audiences, and then people in fashion and design-related fields are another. A third is just the museum-going public, and that is very much an international public. So, we try to do shows that represent original research, but that are also accessible to people at all levels of sophistication. A lot of the FIT community or designers who come to shows really know a lot about fashion history and design so you have to give them more, extra in-depth things. But you also want to be accessible to people who walk in off the street. They might be anyone from a six-year-old to a grandma who might not know very much about fashion, but you have to intrigue them as well. That is the idea to try and present it in a way which is visually stimulating and exciting so that whether they know anything about the topic or if they bother to read anything, they can still get something out of the show.

I actually have noticed a lot of children when I am in the museum, and I am amazed they are not only interested, but they comment on stuff!

Oh they will! Absolutely! A colleague of mine brought her two-year-old son to the corset show, and she said he just sat down on the floor and gazed up at this Vivenne Westwood corset-dress. She thought it was wonderful, she said, “oh there he is fantasizing about the eternal feminine.”

What do you think the hardest part about developing a show is? Is it picking the topic or is it finding people to work with or…?

Oh, I don’t know if there is a “hardest” part. I think one of the challenges is actually getting your hands on the things you want to put in the show. You’ll do all kinds of research, and you’ll think, “Okay I want this dress, I want this dress…” but then you have to find out who owns that? And will they lend it to me? And how much will it cost to borrow it, how can I raise the money to borrow it? Et cetera, et cetera.

Well, that leads me into my next question. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute collection is the only one, at least in New York, that can even compare to the one at the Museum at FIT. So what is your relationship with them, do you borrow and lend a lot for shows?

We do borrow and lend with them. I wouldn’t say a lot, but every few shows they will borrow something from us or we will borrow from them. Two pieces in the dance exhibition are from the Met, and we’re lending I think four pieces to their China exhibition which will open in the Spring.

So it is only a few pieces then. I guess you both have such huge collections neither of you need to borrow anything.

Well, it is interesting, we will borrow back and forth for a few key pieces, and both of us have a pretty good idea of what is in the other collection. We also borrow and lend from the Museum of the City of New York, which also has a fantastic collection. Most of the older things, for example, if there is a 19th century thing, we will try and borrow from them. We also loaned to their Stephen Burrows show a year ago.

Oh yes, I saw that show and I have to admit I was a little surprised. I didn’t think the Museum of the City of New York had that much fashion, but I guess they do.

Oh, they do! They have a really wonderful fashion collection.

Is there one specific exhibit that sticks out in your mind as being particularly exciting or difficult or just interesting for you?

Well, a couple. I loved working on Gothic: Dark Glamour. That was the first time we did a really immersive mise-en- scène with a graveyard, a laboratory, and a ruined castle and things. That was great fun, and I think good preparation for upcoming shows like our fairy tale show, which we will do in 2016 that will similarly have dramatic mise-en-scènes. And then, of course, A Queer History of Fashion won us a lot of prizes, particularly for the work that we did both in reaching out to the LGBT community and doing media online. I think that was also good preparation for remembering to focus on diversity themes in all of our shows and also remembering to emphasize media media media! It is a great way to reach out to people. Even if they cannot come in the door of the exhibition, they can still get information and images online.

Who writes for Fashion Theory, which is your journal?

It is mostly curators and professors and graduate students.

So is it mostly people you have met? Or do people apply?

No, no it is a peer-reviewed journal which means that people send things in, and then I have to find one or two experts in their field who will peer review it and say whether or not it is good enough to go in, or absolutely not, or can it go in only if they make x, y, z changes. It is much more prestigious and important for scholars to be published in a peer-reviewed journal than just a regular magazine.

I just wanted to introduce the readers to the Couture Council, because I think a lot of people don’t even know that it exists. And to be honest, I don’ t know that much about it because there isn’t that much information available.

Yes, the Couture Council is a friends group, which many museums have. It is a membership group; members pay $1,000 a year and young members under 35 pay $350 a year. They can come to various events, and the money–their membership fees along with the awards luncheon–help fund exhibitions, public programs and acquisitions for the museum. We get some money from corporations and foundations, but the Couture Council is nice because it is reliable. No matter what our show is about, whether it is a kooky one that we can’t get any corporate sponsors to fund, or it is controversial in some way, we know the Couture Council is there to help support all our exhibitions and all our public programs.

Lastly, is there anything you would like to do professionally that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?

Well, of course, if you had your own television show, you could reach a bigger audience. I do a lot of [appearances on] TV shows, but I think there is a lot more that could be done. Now, of course, television is becoming a bit outdated, so you really have to think in terms of the world-wide web. We have a new department specifically focusing on media and new initiatives. Many of the videos shown in the lobby are on the YouTube page. On YouTube there’s a little of this and a little of that. Each of the fashion exhibitions has its own website and we’re increasingly doing videos for those.

Yes, I have used the exhibition websites for information for some class projects. They are done really beautifully. Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me. It was a pleasure talking to you!

Of course, with pleasure! Thank you, it was nice talking to you!

–Emily–