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…



Montreal Museums and la Mode

Hi everyone! It has been quite a while since I last posted on this blog, but I’ve decided it’s time to revive it because I have so many exciting things to write about (and photos of course!) For those of you who don’t know, I currently live in New York City and I am about to start my final semester in a masters program at the Fashion Institute of Technology called “Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice.” It has been an interesting year and a half in New York with many ups and downs, and I am excited to graduate and enter a new field that I love! For this post, though, I’m going to go back to why I started this blog in the first place – France! Unfortunately I haven’t made it back to France since my amazing stay as a language teaching assistant in Le Puy-en-Velay, but I did recently visit the next best thing – Montreal! Igor and I took a trip for my birthday, and it was so wonderful to be in another francophone city. Montreal has such an active and diverse cultural life, and I was happy to find that two different fashion exhibitions were on view while we were there, one at the McCord Museum and one at the Musée du Costume et du Textile du Québec. Today I’ll talk about “Chic et Choc,” presented by MCTQ.

image from

image from

The theme of this exhibition is embellishment – stones, beads, sequins gold threads… At first, this can seem like a kind of obvious or unoriginal theme – let’s put a bunch of glittery flashy stuff on display!  But I actually really enjoyed the way MCTQ curated this show, from the choice of objects to how they were displayed, and especially the accompanying labels that made you think about more than just our attraction to all that is glitter and gold.  I like this quote from the introductory text: “The CHIC & CHOC exhibition explores this glittering, fascinating world of dazzling garments and accessories.  It also sheds light on the raw materials involved and the element of inconvenience: fabric quality and maintenance, material sourcing and use, craft or industrial production.  The impacts and implications of this taste for luxury are exposed: this is the CHOC.”


The exhibition started with some beautiful accessories


I thought this purse from 1910-1929 was particularly impressive because of the beautiful pattern and the teeny tiny metal beads. Beads like that would never be produced today!

The exhibition was divided into sections, and in each section elements of “CHIC” and “CHOC” were discussed, along with symbols resembling the care instructions on a garment label, which I thought was a clever little addition.  I particularly liked that several sections touched on conservation issues, like the discussion of dresses from the 1920s that are of lightweight fabric embroidered with (literally) heavy beading and embroidery.  Over time, the fabric rips from the weight of the embellishment and the poor dresses are often falling apart after almost 100 years.  Many museums have these incredibly beautiful dresses housed in flat storage because they have ripped shoulders and cannot be hung.  It is a bit sad, like a fashion morgue or something, but then I think of the spirit in which these dresses were probably made.  They were not made to last; they were made to be worn to a few parties, where I like to think that the free spirited, fun loving wearer danced the night away and enjoyed some cocktails, her dress glittering with every move.  Then the dress was tossed aside when the wearer (who, let’s face it, was probably filthy rich) decided she wanted a new one.  Isn’t that the life?  Anyway, I thought it was great that the exhibition brought up this issue that I think most people don’t really think about. The label below also touches on other issues embellishments have – sequins used to be made of gelatin, which is water-soluble (so be careful when washing vintage pieces with sequins!), and metal can rust, glass can break, etc.


As this was in Quebec, all of the labels were in French and English – take note, learners of French! This is a great way to practice and learn new words!

I was so happy that the museum chose to display these dresses even though they are too fragile to be put on a mannequin. I wish more museums would display items flat so that the public can see them, instead of leaving these beauties in storage for only a lucky few to see.

I was so happy that the museum chose to display these dresses even though they are too fragile to be put on a mannequin. I wish more museums would display objects flat for public viewing instead of leaving these beauties in storage for only a lucky few to see.



The exhibition space was small, but I love how they divided sections with these slightly sheer black fabric panels. It gave you direction but didn’t make the space feel smaller. (Aaaand these are the things that you only really think about when you are in school for museum studies, right?)

The exhibition spanned the entire twentieth century, and included a mix of both designer pieces and pieces not attributed to a designer.  I liked that the focus was on the garments themselves and what went into making them, rather than highlighting only pieces made by famous names.  As someone who loves making clothes and learning about historical construction techniques and materials, this was totally up my alley.  There was also a video that featured interviews of artisans who discussed how the industry of embellished materials has changed, and how it is difficult now to make a living doing work by hand.  They explained that while machine embellishment is cheaper, hand sewn beading is much more durable and long-lasting.


Confession: I secretly have a thing for giant paillettes. I’m loving the top on the right, although I’m not sure if I could pull of wearing something like that in public!

One of the major highlights of the exhibition was a costume that Celine Dion wore on stage (fitting for this museum, since she is from Québec!).  They even displayed the original pattern for the pants, which were hand beaded with Swarovski crystals.



kind of cheesy and 90s, but that’s 1999 for ya.

complete with mic pack!

complete with mic pack!

Overall, I found the exhibition really enjoyable!  I wish Montreal was closer so that I could visit more often.  It is such a great city with wonderful museums, food, tons of festivals, and just a really unique feel with how diverse and multilingual it is. (Although there are a few too many underground malls.  Like, way too many… don’t get out on the “St Catherine Street” side of the subway station because you will get stuck in blocks and blocks of underground malls.)

One last thing from MCTQ that I would like to share – these incredible paper garments were displayed in the Marché Bonsecours where the museum is located.  Aren’t they great?  They trace the fashionable silhouette from the 1880s to the 1920s.


This mini exhibition was put on by the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec

DSCN5418 DSCN5428Well, that’s all for now.  Thank you for reading, and I look forward to sharing more of my fun fashion- and museum-related adventures!  Stay tuned for a post about the McCord Museum’s exhibition Love in Fine Fashion: Wedding Dresses from the McCord Museum.

Musées continued – Fashion as Art

As promised, here is a continued discussion of museums!  A while ago,  I talked about three very different museums in Paris and what I liked about each one.  This time I’m going to talk about another type of museum experience that is becoming really popular right now – fashion exhibits.  This topic is really important to me because I hope to work in that field; researching, designing, and presenting exhibits that will share my view of the many different things clothing can be (fashion is only part of it) and why it is important historically, culturally, and artistically.  I am specifically interested in ‘Clothing as Art,’ which is a pretty controversial idea (you would think that if it’s in an art museum it would be considered art, but then there’s the definition of ‘art’, etc etc…), and I hope to study and create what I consider to be ‘clothing as art’ in the future.

The number of fashion exhibits in museums has been growing rapidly over the past few years, and this article from the Daily Mail credits the McQueen exhibit at the MET, which I mentioned before, for starting this trend.  The MET’s Costume Institute has been doing fashion exhibits for a long time; I remember seeing the ‘AngloMania’ exhibit my first time in New York back in 2006, ‘Models as Muse’ a few years later, and then of course McQueen.  Another notable museum for fashion exhibits is the Museum of Fabric and Decorative Arts in Lyon, France, where I saw one of the most amazing fashion exhibits I have ever seen (Franck Sorbier, 2009).  There are also museums at design schools like FIT and RISD… So fashion exhibits were not non-existent until now, but I guess they are starting to spread to a lot more museums that were perhaps previously too conservative to host a fashion exhibit (although I wouldn’t credit the McQueen exhibit.  It just reiterated that fashion exhibits can be successful, as it had record numbers of visitors).  I’ve found a lot of lists of international fashion exhibits online.  I saw a fashion exhibit in Montreal in November 2010, and the next year the design team Rodarte created the first fashion collection made specifically for a museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).  The MFA in Boston had a big year of fashion exhibits in 2010, with the Avedon fashion photography exhibit, then the Scaasi exhibit (which I found disappointing.  One room? seriously?).  They had a big First Fridays event to celebrate ‘Fashion Month’ at the MFA, complete with a Saks Fifth Avenue fashion show.  I don’t know if ‘Fashion Month’ was the MFA’s biggest success, but that event was definitely important for me, since I met the Costume Shop Manager from the American Repertory Theather there, and it led to my first ever sewing job (shout out to the A.R.T!  I miss you guys!).  Basically, fashion exhibits are having a big moment right now, and I really hope it lasts because I really want to be part of it!

I should note that there are museums with fashion and accessory items on display alongside paintings, sculptures, and furniture, like the The new American wing of the MFA and Decorative Arts museums like the V&A, but this is different because the pieces are valued for historical significance rather than the designs, and the pieces are part of the museum’s collection.

Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

The most exciting thing about the fashion exhibit we saw in Paris (other than the fact that it was in Paris) was that for me, it really represented the idea of ‘clothing as art.’  Most of the well-known, well-publicized fashion exhibits are, as that article says, ‘couture collection as gallery exhibit,’ or a celebration of a specific designer’s legacy or some theme represented by multiple big-name designers.  Some also center around famous photographers or models, but in general they include famous designers who make fashion for the runway, ultimately for (rich) people to buy and wear, even if some of the couture pieces on display are not particularly wearable.  The Rodarte exhibit is an interesting exception, since the clothes were designed specifically for museum display, which I think is awesome (too bad I missed it!).  This is not to say that the exhibits were bad or not ‘artsy’.  Alexander McQueen was definitely an artist, even more than most designers, because his fashion shows were exceptionally innovative, he often used unconventional materials and shapes in his designs, and he definitely used his work to express different abstract themes.  I have also seen some off-beat fashion exhibits that definitely showed how artistic fashion can be, not just in a physical workmanship kind of way, but also in expressing an idea or a message. What made the Hussein Chalayan exhibit at Les Arts Décoratifs unique was that it blatantly presented the idea of fashion as art.  The exhibit was accompanied by a booklet with a paragraph or sometimes even page about each collection, discussing Chalayan’s inspiration and the message he wanted to represent.  I appreciated that it gave viewers the tools to understand the ideas behind the clothes, it hinted at Chalayan’s artistic process, and it made it ok for clothing to not be wearable (in real life, at least.  Most of the pieces were able to make it down a runway).  The wearability of a piece of clothing is I think the most obvious measure of distinguishing what is fashion and what is art; however, I think that wearable fashion could also be considered art if it was presented like art.

parachute dresses

This exhibit was a great way to get people to think differently about clothing, and see how it can be different things.  Not just something to wear, but a form of expression, either of the wearer or of the designer.  The exhibit also included quite a few videos, both of fashion shows and also creative short films created by Chalayan to accompany the display of certain garments.  Some of the films didn’t even feature the clothes, so it was clear that he was presenting an idea through several mediums, rather than just displaying some cool clothes.  The mannequins in the exhibit were often displayed in certain settings, like a garden or a room that looked like it was under construction.  In one case, the setting was the clothing, because the chairs and table of a room actually became clothing for the models to wear!  Other items on display included Chalayan’s technical sketches and notes, a nice peek into the mind of the creator.

Hussein Chalayan is known for being on the forefront of technology and fashion, and one of the most impressive parts of the exhibition was a video of his Spring/Summer 2007 fashion show, which included dresses that transformed from one design into another to show how styles have changed throughout history and also how they can overlap.  Here’s a little sample (there’s a video of the full show on Chalayan’s website):

The table dress was also pretty awesome:

photo from of the art

Other crazy technologically advanced fashions included the first ever LED dress, dresses with lasers coming out of them, and a dress that floated on the model.  The clothing that was not electronic or glowing was equally as impressive, and it all sent a strong message (even if it was often necessary to read the pamphlet to understand exactly what the message was).

LED dress

Unfortunately, the Chalayan exhibit was pretty strict about not taking photos, and the exhibition book was 65 euros, so it’s not as well documented as I would have liked.  But, to make up for it, here is the aforementioned eye candy from Harrod’s in London!  I definitely have a great interest and respect for clothing as art, but commercial fashion is also beautiful, especially when displayed so creatively.  Harrod’s might as well be a museum.  Just think of all the interior designers, lighting technicians, painters, and stylists that went into each of these displays.  It’s amazing!

Harrod's can make even kitchen utensils look fashionable