Here is the third installment of my interview (from November 2008) with Christina Johnson, Collection Manager of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. In the last post, Christina talked about the Versace and Gernrich collections. This week, she’ll discuss a very special collector and a collection of Mae West clothing and objects.
Heather: Are there any other new acquisitions of particular interest?
Christina: Well, there’s the Mae West donation. A private collector of Mae West memorabilia contacted us about a year ago and invited us to come to his apartment to look at his collection.
Heather: How many pieces?
Christina: I would say we took 30 pieces.
Heather: And how many did he have that he wanted you to take?
Christina: . . . maybe… 200 pieces?
Heather: Can you talk a little bit about your process of elimination, what do you look at to decide what to take?
Christina: Sure. So he had many more pieces than we had room for. The way we select pieces is first of all condition: It has to be in excellent condition. We would prefer not to take something that is really damaged or extremely soiled because it is a distraction when it’s on exhibition. There are some things that we do make exceptions for, but for the most part it has to be in very good to excellent condition. So he had some things that were very damaged that needed major conservation and we do not have a conservation department yet so we chose to leave those items.
Heather: One quick question – if somebody wants to donate something and they maybe have some stains on the pieces, would you advise that try to clean it themselves or check with you first?
Christina: Check with us first, absolutely. And we have taken things that needed conservation, and we have sent things out to be conserved. We also have taken some things to hold onto, until we do get our own conservation department.
Heather: Can you continue describing the ways in which you decide to take pieces?
Christina: It has to be a very striking design. It has to be a show-stopping piece. It can’t be bland in any way. And so it was amazing that Mae West wore these and that is one reason we took these. In and of themselves, they are exhibition pieces. Had Mae West’s name not been attached to them, they still would have been fabulous.
Heather: And the pieces you took, were they primarily couture, or were they Hollywood?
Christina: They were not French Haute Couture, but were couture-quality. . They were a lot of handmade lingerie by Juel Park. Joel Park was a made to measure lingerie designer. Marlene Dietrich and a lot of old Hollywood actresses had Juel Park lingerie. So, there were a lot of negligee sets, full-length satin nightgowns with robes that had insertions of handmade lace. We took a few corsets from the 1940s and 50s, but they had a Victorian feel. They really looked Victorian.
Heather: And that totally fits in with Mae West’s image.
Christina: Exactly, so we really wanted those corsets. But really, I want to tell you about the shoes we took. We were floored when we saw the shoes. We walked into a bedroom, (things were spread out all over the house so we could see them) and the entire floor was covered in shoes, probably 35 pairs. Day wear, evening wear, cowboy boots, everything. Everything was custom made by a local Los Angeles shoe designer. As we know, she was a very curvy woman, but she was also very petite, short woman. So oftentimes when she was on stage, or in real life – as often her stage and real life merged – she wanted to appear more statuesque, so she always wore extremely high heels. All of her high heels, her day wear, the heels are about six inches. We have gold kid, we have red brocaded satin in a Chinese pattern, we have silver kid – amazing pieces..
We also have pairs of her stage shoes. These are pairs that we call ‘double decker shoes’ because they are one high heel pump on top of another high heel pump. The top high heeled shoe in a neutral color is where her foot would go. That pump would sit on top of an oversized high heel pump so that the toes of the bottom high heel stick out of the bottom of the gown. In that way it looks like she’s wearing the bottom pump. For some reason they didn’t just make extra tall platforms. They are essentially 9 inch platforms. She also had cowboy boots, and go-go boots. These all date to the 1940s for the most part. It was truly amazing to see all of these.
Heather: And did you take gowns at all?
Christina: He did not have gowns. The collector had some stage costumes, but they were from her very later years in cabaret and we don’t really collect that. It just wasn’t right for our collection.
Tune in next week for the concluding portion of the interview! In the meantime, check out this trailer for the Mae West movie, “I’m No Angel” from 1933.