It all started with an Independent Study with Professor Nagel in AHMP in Spring 2022 where I met with Italian diplomats, members of the FBI Art Crime team, investigative journalists and many professionals working to combat the illicit trade of antiquities.
Following graduation, in Fall 2022 I moved to the University of Glasgow in Scotland for a Master’s Program in “Art History: Collecting and Provenance in an International Context.” In 2023, I moved on to beautiful Amelia in Umbria in Italy for a Postgraduate Certificate Program at the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) which runs every May to September. Enjoy Some Photos from Amelia, from Rome and from Italy in Summer 2023!
By Emma Sosebee (AHMP’23), Thursday, July 13, 2023
The wives or daughters of fishermen, otherwise known as fishwives, were an essential part of the local economy and culture of Scotland until the dominance of industrialization in the mid-twentieth century made small-scale fisheries obsolete. While their husbands or fathers were off at sea, these women––in combination with caring for their large families––were responsible for cleaning the men’s fishing lines and attaching a variety of new bait, gutting and cleaning the day’s catch in freezing water, and carrying heavy loads of freshly prepared fish for miles to sell at city markets or from house to house. Besides their physically demanding jobs and sharp tongues, these women were also known throughout the country for their distinctive dress. In an effort to increase fashion history scholarship that focuses on working-class communities, this essay will discuss the outfits that Scottish fishwives commonly wore while laboring and for cultural celebrations.
Although existing documentation of the usual uniform worn by these women is unfortunately scarce, past interviews with former fishwives of Newhaven (a district in the City of Edinburgh, Scotland) provide some insight. Their work clothing was relatively simple, and consisted of a navy blue cot, otherwise known as a petticoat, made out of thick flannel; a dark, possibly wool, gown put on over top; and even a white and navy woolen brat––the word for cloak in the Scots language––for days with harsher weather conditions (see fig. 1 and 2). Both their petticoats and dresses were significantly shorter than the ankle-length garments that were common at the time. While they displayed more of the leg than was typical for women’s fashions, the rather practical calf-length gave fishwives greater freedom of movement and kept their skirts clean. To finish off the look, these fisherwomen typically wore dark wool stockings and black leather lace-up shoes with short heels.
Many historic photographs seen nowadays that exhibit the clothing of Scottish fishwives were heavily staged and thus show the women in their traditional ‘gala-dress,’ rather than their working uniform as discussed above (see fig. 3 and 4). These gala-dresses were worn on special events only; namely, for Sundays, Harvest Thanksgiving and other festivals, and the Fisherlassies’ and Fisherwomen’s choirs. When describing such outfits, the 19th-century writer Lady Eastlake claimed: “With a heavy load of petticoats as of fish . . . She was laden with clothes, petticoat over petticoat, striped and whole color, all of the thickest woolen material.”
Fishwives in their gala-dress were generally observed wearing two layers of heavy woolen petticoats tied around their waists. Both were made of a broad, vertically striped fabric (see fig. 5 and 6). The first petticoat was often made of a vivid red and white material, but the second one’s colors differed depending on location: Newhaven women usually wore yellow and white, whereas those from Fisherrow (a harbor and former fishing village, now incorporated into the town of Musselburgh in Scotland) wore blue and white. The yellow or blue and white petticoats had a kind of padded undergarment, or bustle, to assist in supporting the weight of the creel (i.e., woven basket) worn on a fishwife’s back. A cotton apron of blue and white stripes, pinned to the inside of the second cot, and a medium-sized pooch––the Scots term for pocket (see fig. 6)––were also tied around the waist; as famously shown in depictions of fishwives, their aprons would be kilted up over the top petticoat and pinned to hang in a neat point in the front. Furthermore, the women would don shor’goons, which were long blouses with short sleeves, of various colors and patterns.
The finishing touches to the upper half of the gala-dress were the addition of a broad satin ribbon, tied into a bow and pinned to the wearer’s chest with a brooch, as well as a shawl that would be draped over their head and shoulders. Sometimes, fishwives could also be spotted with stiff white caps over their hair. Similar to their daily outfits, they wore white worsted stockings and high-quartered shoes. What is most interesting is the fact that the entirety of this festive costume lacked any buttons or hooks and eyes; instead of having such efficient closures, which would have required sewing to be attached, these outfits were held together by a multitude of ties and pins and made putting them on quite the hassle.
Both the atypical length of the petticoats seen in the daily, functional uniforms of fishwives, as well as the elaborate and haphazardly assembled outfits they wore on special occasions, undoubtedly stand out in fashion history. As a consequence of the global turn toward industrialization, the economic and social role that such hardworking women of Scottish history played is over; within the last few years as well, the majority of the remaining generation of former fishwives have passed away from old age. Nevertheless, thanks to the documentation provided by charmed 19th and 20th-century writers and photographers alike, the intriguing fashion of these traditional fisherwomen lives on.
About the Author
Emma Sosebee (she/her/hers) is a 2023 graduate of the AHMP program and one of the curators of Claire McCardell: Practicality, Liberation, Innovation at The Museum at FIT (April 5-16, 2023). Throughout her undergraduate career, Emma developed an enthusiasm for how arts institutions care for their numerous objects. She hopes to pursue her interest in the collections management field and is currently an intern in the Collections Department at The Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York.
An Interview with AHMP alum and Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) Assistant Curator Darnell-Jamal Lisby, by Dina Pritmani, Friday April 21, 2023.
Darnell-Jamal Lisby, Cleveland Museum of Art Assistant Curator of Fashion and Curator of Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession, currently on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art, sat down with Dina Pritmani, AHMP (’24) to answer a few questions. Darnell joined the CMA in 2021 to develop projects rooted in fashion studies that range across the museum’s various curatorial departments. Before coming to the CMA, he had gained experiences and worked at other institutions such as the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where as a MuSe intern he helped research the 2018 landmark exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, and The Museum at FIT. Darnell is a proud AHMP alum, who has published extensively on academic and mainstream platforms, including the Fashion and Race Database, Cultured magazine, and Teen Vogue. Starting out with an AAS in Fashion Merchandising, he received his Bachelor of Science in the Art History and Museum Professions (AHMP) program here at FIT before continuing finishing his MA in Fashion and Textiles Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, also at SUNY FIT.
DP: Many Congratulations on the Egyptomania exhibition! Thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I would like to know more about the background of the exhibition. What inspired you to organize an exhibition with this theme? Why is the topic so important?
D-JL: Like most people, ancient Egyptian culture intrigues me as well. After seeing a handful of recent collections by different ateliers, inspired by ancient Egyptian art, I thought it would be pretty timely to execute the project. Additionally, when I started curating the show, it was the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of Tut’s tomb, so again, I thought it would be timely to produce this exhibition.
DP: How do you create a narrative or theme for an exhibition, and what strategies do you use to engage and educate your audience?
D-JL: Like any curator, you try to find glaring stories that connect the various objects I was thinking about compiling for my checklist. One of which was about cultural appropriation and if it applies to the use of ancient Egyptian culture as inspiration. Finding topics, like cultural appropriation, that connect with contemporary events are accessible ways to engage the audience. Furthermore, I used the broader topic of ancient Egyptian art and culture as inspiration for fashion to peak audience’s interest and then guided them to the denser topics like cultural appropriation and identity.
DP: Could you walk us through the process of curating the exhibition, from selecting the artwork to designing the installation?
Well, it can get complicated, making it difficult to convey in a few short words. With said, I looked at different topics that I felt inspired to explore such as, cultural appropriation, the identity of ancient Egyptians, and how we and audiences over time connect with ancient Egyptian culture. From there, based on the budget I was given, I had to be very deliberate about which contemporary fashions spoke to the topic as well as ancient Egyptian art from the Cleveland Museum of Art collection that helped support the theses. Additionally, I had to lay out the history of Egyptomania and early Egyptological research that spurred the Egyptomania movement; thus, I had to pull examples across the CMA collection from decorative arts to drawings to help develop that foundation. As part of the CMA strategic plan, which strategic plans help guide the mandates of each museum employee, I also had to think about an intervention in our CMA Egyptian gallery (The second photo attached is of the intervention). Interventions are ways that you can bring outside art into permanent collection galleries, emphasizing new ways to analyze various works of art and collections. I wanted to have one of the fashions that I chose displayed in the Egyptian gallery, in which I chose a Givenchy ensemble from the fall 2016 collection the Givenchy archive graciously allowed me to use. Some of the other houses I displayed include Chanel, Balmain, and Cartier. Additionally, I wanted to highlight Egyptian fashion design voices, so I incorporated two gowns by Egyptian designer Yasmine Yeya for her house Maison Yeya and a purse by Sabry Marouf. Once I developed the checklist, I had to develop the didactics, illuminating what I found in my research that I was developing as I chose the checklist. Once the didactics went through rigorous edits, then it was time to work with the exhibition design team to create the physical show. I worked with them to create the blueprints and what inspirations I wanted to evoke. Lastly, in conjunction with the conservation team, headed by Sarah Scaturro, who was the former chief conservator of the Costume Institute, we figured out what type of dress forms we wanted to use. We also partnered with renowned costume dresser, Tae Smith to help dress the forms. After that, the rest is history… All things considered, the point is that each part of the process requires collaboration with departments from project management and exhibition design to production and conservation. To reiterate, every decision always comes back to the budget. Because I’m starting the fashion department here at the CMA, jumping to have the same budgets as somewhere as the Costume Institute at the MET is unrealistic, so I had to manage what I could with what I was given to do my best to give audiences the best experience as possible.
DP: Who inspired you to become an art curator, and how did you get started?
D-JL: After studying Andrew Bolton’s career way back in high school, it was his journey that encouraged me to become an art and fashion curator. I started just like you, in the Art History and Museum Professions program at FIT, taking in every bit of education and internship experience I could. After finishing the program, I matriculated into the MA in Fashion and Textiles Studies FIT Graduate program, and again, I absorbed as much as I could through my education and internships.
DP: What are some of the challenges you face as a curator, and how do you navigate issues such as limited budgets, conflicting stakeholder interests, and ethical considerations?
D-JL: I think the biggest challenge is just getting institutions to understand the value of fashion in the art historical realm because once that’s understood, life becomes easier from budgets, stakeholders’ interest, and ethical considerations. As mentioned, budgets can be tough, but at some point, you must go with the flow and know that God will provide a path moving forward. Philippians 4:6-7 is one of my favorite quotes to reference, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Of course, everyone’s path to peace is different, but this is my recipe. I think understanding that also understanding that in a place like Cleveland, which is not a fashion center, my work is going to be a slow burn to get a certain level of international recognition that leads to various degrees of support, from financial to cultural. And that’s okay. I think most people think they’ll be the next big thing, but staying true to yourself and going along with the process will take you where you need to be. I think, especially when I was an AHMP major, we could change the world. That’s still true, but it’s going to take a lot more politicking than one can imagine. Also, being one of the Black curators in the world involved in this work and heading my own department is a blessing certainly that I thank the CMA for, but also using my platform to expand representation in fashion and pulling up others along the way is what I live for.
DP: What are some of the most memorable exhibitions you’ve curated or participated in, and what made them stand out for you?
D-JL: When I helped curate the Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibition with Alexandra Cunningham Cameron and Julie Pastor at Cooper Hewitt, I had the best time exploring the stories of all the people Smith knew during his life and how much they loved him. It was those stories that helped develop the exhibition and accompanying assets. When I curated the Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession, I found all my research discoveries very exciting too, like understanding that the ancient Egyptians were unified by religion, not racial identity – as race is recent construct in our human history. I also loved dressing the mannequins and physically mounting the exhibition, seeing all the work we did at the CMA come to life.
DP: How do you see the role of fashion curators evolving in the future, and what do you think are some key trends and challenges facing the field?
D-JL: Fashion curators will continue to push boundaries, including searching for new topics that lean into contemporary culture to discovering new contributions by unsung figures and cultures, because fashion is such an accessible medium that touches on so many audiences’ lived experiences. I think the biggest challenge right now for fashion historians is not being afraid to tackle dense topics. As curators, our jobs are to make a complicated topic layman. Moreover, looking to diverse perspectives and celebrating a broader degree of contributions is very important and will help solidify fashion as a critical part of academia.
DP: Thank you so very much for taking the time to answer the questions. Many Congratulations on Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession!
Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession will be on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art until January 24, 2024. The exhibition website has more information and extras on related events and more. Follow the work of Darnell-Jamal Lisby.
About the Author
Dina Pritmani is a junior at FIT’s AHMP program, and currently a Facilitator in The Museum at FIT. Dina is passionate about Western Asian Art, jewelry design, and learning about ways to decolonize museums. The interview was an opportunity to discuss these aspects with a Museum Professional as part of an assignment for MP 361 “Museum Professions and Administration.”