Interview on a Collection and Collecting, Part I

Group of Claire McCardell dresses in storage. FIDM Museum Collection. Copyright FIDM Museum.

In November of 2008, I had the opportunity to interview Christina Johnson, Collection Manager of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. I’ve finally finished going over the details, and am happy to be able to bring you, over the next several weeks, a wonderful look inside the collection Christina manages (a long with some equisite photographs). I hope to provide readers of Worn Through with useful information, as well as an enjoyable look into the many parts of the collection of the Museum at FIDM. This interview highlights their Gernrich, Versace, Dietrich, Mae West and Hollywood collections. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did! For the first installment of the interview, Christina provided me with a brief history of the collection:

Christina: FIDM Museum was founded in 1977 as a resource for fashion designers, scholars, instructors and costume designers. It was originally a part of the FIDM College library and was cared for by librarians. The museum now consists of a Permanent Collection and a Study Collection. The Permanent Collection numbers about 10,000 pieces and is accessed primarily by scholars. The Study Collections consists of 2,000 pieces and is really for student access. Students can use both collections, but for the most part their needs are satisfied by the Study Collection, which is much more hands-on than the Permanent Collection.

Evening Coat. c. 1927. Gift of Ms. Judy Thomsen. FIDM Museum Study Collection. Copyright FIDM Museum.

Evening Coat. c. 1927. Gift of Ms. Judy Thomsen. FIDM Museum Study Collection. Copyright FIDM Museum.

Heather: And much more about inspiration?

Christina: Exactly. Utilizing the Study Collection, they can do anything but wear a garment or take it apart. So for example, our Study Collection Manager can roll out racks of pleats, or of 1970s garments or of Adolfo pieces to classrooms. It’s very much an educational tool. Whereas the permanent collection is mostly open to scholars, other museum employees and designers and has more stringent handling guidelines. The permanent collection is now up to about 10,000 pieces. About 10 years ago a dedicated, museum-trained staff was hired to care for the museum collection. The collection became very separate from the library, though both the library and the costume collection are under the same non-profit foundation.

Heather: I didn’t realize that the two were linked.

Christina: Yes and in terms of the scope the permanent collection is about 10,000 pieces at this point, dating from 1790 to the present. But really, the strength of the collection lies in the mid-19th century to about the 1980s. We are now actively trying to acquire early 19th century items as well as late 20th and early 21st Century items.

Day dress. c.1870. Gift of Anne Stampfer. FIDM Museum Collection. Photo by Brian Sanderson. Copyright FIDM Museum.

Day dress. c.1870. Gift of Anne Stampfer. FIDM Museum Collection. Photo by Brian Sanderson. Copyright FIDM Museum.

Heather: And how do you decide what to add to your collection?

Christina: We acquire new pieces by design merit. We ask: Is it an example of its era and is it of very high quality? It is very much a connoisseur type of collection, We are not as interested in the history of the piece or the wearer, or the provenance. Although if a piece comes with provenance, we always record it in our database. For the most part, the interest lies in the piece itself and our collection is focused on high end garments and couture.

Heather: I had assumed that most of your collection was tied to Hollywood, do you still acquire in that area?

Christina: We do still collect and are actively acquiring Hollywood costumes. In part, that’s because of how much influence Hollywood has had and continues to have on fashion. So many of our students and graduates find work in that industry, we find it’s important that it be represented. But again, that isn’t our main focus.

Heather: Can you tell me a little more about what you have in the collection?

Christina: FIDM does have a movie costume collection. Specifically, we also have on long-term loan, the Department of Recreation and Parks, City of Los Angeles Hollywood Costume Collection. That includes a good number of pieces from Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow. We have the largest collection of Marlene Dietrich clothing outside of the archive in Berlin.

Dietrich jackets Left: Travis Banton. Evening jacket worn by Marlene Dietrich. c. 1950. FIDM Museum Collection. Copyright FIDM Museum. Right: Travis Banton/Howard Greer. Evening jacket worn by Marlene DIetrich. c. 1935-1940. FIDM Museum Collection. Copyright FIDM Museum

Dietrich jackets Left: Travis Banton. Evening jacket worn by Marlene Dietrich. c. 1950. FIDM Museum Collection. Copyright FIDM Museum. Right: Travis Banton/Howard Greer. Evening jacket worn by Marlene DIetrich. c. 1935-1940. FIDM Museum Collection. Copyright FIDM Museum

Heather: Does that include their personal clothing as well as their Film costumes?

Christina: Yes, that includes their personal and Hollywood costumes. So for example we have Dietrich’s ready-to-wear suits by Adrian, and by Irene. We have her couture from Dior, Balmain and Jacques Fath. But we also have costumes from Witness for the Prosecution and Desire. So those are a part of that long-term loan.

Heather: Can you tell me a little more about how that collection came to exist?

Christina: The City of Los Angeles purchased, at auction, the contents of a Hollywood Museum in the 1960s. They were not able to care for the items properly, so they leant the portions of that collection (via long-term loan) to various museums. We have the costumes—about 300 pieces.

We’ll end “Part I” there, but there’s much more to come!

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