My First Time at the CSA Symposium: Perspectives on Fashion, Costume, and Historic Dress

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Costume Society of America’s Annual Meeting and Symposium in Cleveland, Ohio. Titled “The Full Cleveland: Dress as Communication, Self-Expression, and Identity” it was a week full of research presentations, professional development sessions, and even some behind-the-scenes museum tours all centered around historic costume and dress. This was my first time at the national symposium, and it was an incredible (but exhausting) week!

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For those unfamiliar with CSA, the title “Costume Society of America” can be a bit confusing or even misleading – most of us think of costume as something created for films, plays, or Halloween. The Costume Society of America encompasses much more than that. In the field of fashion studies, the terms “costume,” “fashion,” and “dress” all have specific meanings. The first thing we studied in my graduate program at FIT was the different theoretical perspectives on fashion and the different definitions of these terms, establishing which definitions for these words that we would adopt  so we were all on the same page. After two years of talking about “fashion” versus “costume” and being understood, it is easy to forget that these definitions are by no means universal. So what, then is “costume”? At FIT’s Fashion and Textiles department, “costume” is something that stays the same – uniforms or national dress, for example, or alternatively “costumes” for film or stage. “Fashion” is the system of seasonally changing clothing styles, and “dress” is anything that someone puts on their body, including fashion and anti-fashion, body adornment, costume, and plain old clothes. While the Costume Society of America symposium did include discussions of theatrical costume, it also included historic fashion and dress, “costume” in both senses of the word, and even contemporary fashion.


I think Lady Gaga’s meat dress deserves its own category – beef jerky?

In fact, what struck me the most at the symposium was the interesting mix of people and perspectives that CSA brings together. Everyone in attendance was interested in “costume” or dress in some way, but there seemed to be two groups that fell on different ends of the spectrum in terms of their interests and professional activities: historical costumers and museum professionals and academics who specialize in costumes and textiles. Then of course there were those who bridge the gap – on the bus to one of the excursions, I met a woman who makes mascot costumes as her primary job (the secret to inflated ones are actual fans sewn inside!) but who considers textile conservation her true calling, and does it part-time. Some fashion historians recreate historic dress as a part of their study, so are costumers in a sense. While sometimes there are tensions between these two groups that treat costume so differently, I found the variety of perspectives to be extremely enriching.

On the costume side, there was an excellent presentation by Sara Jablon and Eulanda Sanders entitled Historical Accuracy and the Communication of Theatrical Costume Design. Drawing from her many interviews with Broadway costume designers, Jablon spoke about different ways that designers interpret historic dress for the stage – for example, emphasizing one major historic element of dress while eliminating others, or contemporizing the historic dress to make it look intentionally inaccurate. It was a well thought-out and well-researched presentation, and it was wonderful to hear a costumer address the issue of historical (in)accuracy in such a thoughtful and explicit way. I often hear fashion historians criticize costumes (particularly in film and on TV) for being historically inaccurate, and my feeling is that it’s ok. Costumes do not need to be 100% accurate; they are costumes. Let the designer have some artistic license! Acknowledge that sometimes the goal is beauty and entertainment, not fashion history education. As long as the costumes support a well-presented story and, as Jablon pointed out, don’t distract or confuse the viewer, then they don’t need to have every last shoelace be perfectly accurate. I was not able to attend every single session, but I heard that Matthew Lee Hale’s presentation about Cosplay was also excellent, and there was also a juried design exhibition.

IMG_4814edThe excursion to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was also a celebration of stage costumes. Collections Manager Jun Francisco gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of their collections storage, and showed us clothing worn by Janis Joplin, Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Michael Jackson, and more. On display in the museum of itself was an incredible amount of costumes. From Lady Gaga’s meat dress to David Bowie’s metal wings, it was clear that costumes are one of the most memorable aspects of a performer’s persona, and as artifacts they are some of the most personal. Thanks to Monica Sklar for organizing that special tour, it was truly a privilege!


Sargent Pepper!!!


So much Beyonce fabulousness


Gorgeous Supremes costumes


My inner child freaked out when I saw the Elvis stuff. I was obsessed with Elvis as a kid

On the museum/academic side, there were many presentations of research on a wide variety of subjects. Some of my favorites dealt with print sources of fashion history. FIT’s own April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary presented on the history of Pochoir, an early 20th century artform that beautifully illustrated the fashions of designers like Paul Poiret and Jeanne Paquin (learn more in their book Fashion and the Art of Pochoir).  Michael McCarty and Mark Hutter of Colonial Williamsburg, along with Anne Bissonette of the University of Alberta, presented excellent research that looks at 18th century “Macaroni” dress outside of the satirical sources and caricatures that are often cited in discussions of this flamboyant style. It was interesting to hear the history behind the style of these well-traveled elite young men before they became the victims of harsh satire (including, yes, the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”). I particularly liked that they likened Macaroni caricatures to a meme! Lynne Sorge also drew on a unique source of fashion history in her analysis of dress and identity in the records of the Old Bailey Trials, arguing that undergarments (especially those that achieved the proper silhouette like corsets) were a major source of identity for women, who would rather be arrested than forfeit their stays.

pochoir 2

From Fashion and the Art of Pochoir by April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary

Other presentations were “virtual exhibits” of fashion exhibitions that have happened over the past year, including A Virginia Man: Respect, Responsibility, Rebellion curated by Kristen Stewart at the Valentine Museum, and Ingenue to Icon: 70 Years of Fashion for the Collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post curated by Howard Vincent Kurtz at the Hillwood Museum. It was great to see these, since unfortunately I can’t make it to every fashion exhibition in person.

I also attended professional development panels on how to break into the field, how to deal with collections management problems, and the definition of the “curator” in a digital age when access to information allows everyone to “curate.” This sparked an interesting debate about the role of the museum. What one saw as the “Disneyfication” of museums was seen by others as the necessary and welcome way to get younger people into the museum. This conversation almost made its way to the larger idea of what is the relevance of the museum now, and what are the advantages of the actual object over the digital object (a whole other interesting conversation in itself), but I don’t know that everyone wanted to acknowledge that this is an actual issue (especially if they see having events as a “Disneyfication” that somehow taints their traditional authoritative view of what museums are and should be).


I’m glad I had time for some fun in between presentations and professional development sessions. You’re never too old to ride a carousel!

The tour to the Western Reserve Historical Society was proof that seeing the objects in person absolutely has an impact, because their display of late 19th and early 20th century gowns in In Grand Style curated by Susan Neill was breathtaking. The behind-the-scenes tour of their 40,000-piece collection (including 3,000 hats!) was also incredible. There’s nothing like walking through racks and racks of clothes that have lived a life, and have incredible materials, textures, and designs still intact to show for it. As an added bonus, the Cleveland History Center where the collection is located also includes a carousel, an auto and aviation museum, and an entire mansion! What a wonderful place.


Court dress by Lucile, 1912. On display at In Grand Style at the Western Reserve Historical Society


Turn of the century beauties in In Grand Style

Finally, to bring in some discussion of the fashion industry today, author Terri Agins was the keynote speaker. She covered fashion for the Wall Street Journal for many years, and wrote the book that got me interested in studying fashion rather than working in it, ultimately setting me on this career path: The End of Fashion. That book was written in 1999, but is just as relevant today (and I highly recommend it!), and now Agins has a new book out all about the celebrity infiltration of the fashion industry: Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities are Stealing the Spotlight from Designers. Agins is an excellent and very conversational speaker, and her talk was filled with gems like “The Kardashians – they are just like – forget it,” “Kanye West is the disruptor,” and in reference to the Costume Institute’s recent trend of contemporary and flashy fashion exhibitions at the MET, “they had to tart ‘em up.” I also learned that Jennifer Lopez’s perfume bottles are asymmetrical and designed to look like her butt, and Ralph Lauren makes over $1 billion a year from their outlet stores, but they don’t want you to know that. Agins’ main point was that fashion brands can’t survive without celebrities now. Celebrity endorsements in the form of ad campaigns, red carpet appearances, and even just wearing their brand around town, all of which celebrities can be paid for, make the fashion world go round. Alternatively, the designer him or herself can become a celebrity (case in point: Michael Kors, made famous by Project Runway. We know him for his pumpkin orange glow and markdown-bin logo accessories, not for actual good design). Not everyone agreed with everything Agins said, particularly her view that people will never want more expensive high quality clothing again, and that millennials just want cheap crap and buy into celebrity. One “millennial” audience member spoke up to refute this, which I appreciated, being grouped into the “millennial” generation as well and constantly being generalized about. While Agins’ view was perhaps not as hopeful as those of us who want fashion to change for the better (ethically speaking), it made for some interesting conversation and an entertaining keynote speech!

end of fashion

Overall, the week was rich with perspectives, scholarship, design, and an appreciation for costume, historic dress, and fashion. I am so glad that I was able to go and meet so many amazing people, and see a lot of old friends too. If you want to hear more about this year’s CSA symposium, check out my friends’ podcast Unravel – Dana and Joy were running around all week interviewing people at the symposium, and they will have an upcoming episode featuring the people at CSA!

Until next time…



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