Recent Fashion Symposia


Books from Jean Lanvin's Private Library- Image from The Selby


This past weekend in New York City, there were several symposia going on, many of which related to dress and the body in one way or another.  I was happy to find the time to attend two of them.  Friday evening, NYU hosted the 10th annual Richard Martin Visual Culture Symposium—a venue for graduating masters students from the Costume Studies program to present their thesis research.  Pia Catton, an arts reporter for the Wall Street Journal was the guest speaker, and the selected presentations included Emilia Muller, who presented a paper titled, Fashion and Fancy in New York Costume Balls of the Gilded Age, a presentation on slenderness and fashionable body ideals by Marcella Milio, the presentation Purposeful Style: The Empowerment of the Black Male Leader Through Personal Transformation and Calculated Self Presentation by Kimberli Lewis–which compared and contrasted the development of public images by activist Malcom X and rapper 50 cent, and finally, a really interesting presentation titled, Dressed for the Suburbs: Middle-Class Identity at the Turn of the 20th Century by Arianna Funk.  For her thesis research, Arianna worked with a small archive of her great-grandmothers clothing which had been stored in family attics for over a hundred years.  The opportunity to work with these antique pieces and trace their history directly through family photos and other documentation, was a rare opportunity which brings me to Saturdays conference at LIM titled, Fashion: Now and Then

Lester Gaba with Cynthia


Not so easily discernible from the title, the LIM conference was primarily devoted to the acquisition, organization, and archiving of different types of research and material culture.  The morning began with keynote speaker Ron Knoth, a professor at LIM who presented on the life and work of display artist and soap sculptor Lester Gaba, perhaps best known for the mannequin-companion “Cynthia” that he created (See Tove’s earlier post on the history of Mannequins for more on this).  Knoth began his presentation with the question, “How do you reconstruct somebody’s life that’s hidden from us?”  He proceeded to outline the career and work of Gaba (a former LIM professor himself) drawing from a variety of social, artistic, and even health related events in United States history to construct a trajectory of Gaba’s life.  Although at times his talk started to feel slightly aimless– as it was not thesis driven but rather a literal reconstruction of what information he could gather from Gaba’s life– Knoth did a good job of keeping the presentation engaging and entertaining.

Presenter Molly Monosky, Archivist at the Fairchild Archive


This was followed by the first panel titled, The Fashion Photograph.  Panelists included blogger Ari Seth Cohen who spoke about his project Advanced Style, a blog dedicated to documenting the sartorial expressions of older men and women.  He showed a short film titled Nowness, which was a brief glimpse into the inspiring creativity and style found within this somewhat unique fashion demographic.  The second speaker was Deirdre Donahue, currently a librarian at the International Center for Photography, and a former employee of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Donahue discussed her experience working with many photographs from the Costume Institute collection, and through an interesting assemblage of slides that equally featured both the front and back sides of photos (the backs of which, with their labyrinth of notations and comments she likened to a Wiki of sorts), she discussed her transition from looking at fashion photography as simply research material, to viewing fashion photographs as important artifacts of material culture in their own rite.  Molly Monosky, an archivist for Fairchild was the last speaker on the first panel.  The majority of her discussion was spent presenting an overview of the archive, and a breakdown of the process of inputting materials in elaborate detail.  Just as I was starting to lose interest, she shared a policy that Fairchild & Womens Wear Daily had imposed in 1972, in which all prior photos were to be discarded.  Massive quantities of interesting fashion photography was lost, and it was only through the actions of some archivists sticking random photos into incorrect categories, that many of the surviving photos exist today still.

Mimi Weddell from Advanced Style


This interesting admission from the last presenter, drew some thought provoking questions from the crowd about information sharing & preservation, including some of the challenges of archiving material in today’s digital age–and especially when budget restraints are a consideration.   The growth of the blogging community and a newer tendency for artists, designers, and other creators to document and share their work and ideas through mediums such as blogs and image sharing sites like tumblr and flickr opens many doors, especially in terms of information sharing and crowdsourcing, yet also, it is important to realize many of the limitations of reproducing & documenting things electronically–especially when you are looking at images.  When archiving a digital image of a photograph that was originally a silver gelatin print, it can be hard to recreate the original intended effect of the artist or photographer, especially in the case of internet sharing, as images are viewed on such a vast array of different types of media today.

The Reanimation Library


After a break for lunch the second panel Preserving the Past & Present began with a fascinating introduction to The Reanimation Library in Brooklyn, from Andrew Beccone, the founder and director of this highly unusual resource.  While the library is not specific to fashion, the creative potential of the material for artists and designers, and the unorthodox approach to utilizing information that the space offers, makes it a resource worth checking out.  In addition to the Brooklyn Branch, other temporary spaces and related projects have been established in Philadelphia, London, and Chicago.  This archive, a sort of hybrid between a gallery, studio space, and traditional library, raises important questions about collecting and preservation practices.  Who decides what is valuable and worth holding on to, and by what criteria is an object to be judged?  To bring the discussion back to the application of fashion studies he also shared images of a corset, designed by artist Candace Wheeler, and based off patterns from the book “Phases of the Moon”  found at the Reanimation Library.

Presenter Rachel King: LIM College Librarian

Rachel King, the LIM Librarian was the next to speak.  She started her presentation with a silent film still and the question “What does this image have to do with fashion blogs?”  The answer, it turns out, was related to the limited silent film footage that still exists today.  King suggested that  we are currently in a “golden age” of the internet, where the web still exists as a democratic medium that allows for blogging and information sharing between individuals without the monopoly of large corporations.  She drew parallels between the disappearing mediums of silent film and the internet by demonstrating how quickly web based information can vanish, and by underscoring the idea that many businesses and information holding companies (such as film studios or online publishers) operate with profit as a primary goal, with the archiving or storing of information as a necessity only when there is a direct benefit to the business.  This may seem like sensible practice to those businesses, but it is disappointing news to the historian.  King advised that we consider the future of information storing and sharing, particularly in terms of items that are stored on the internet.

Coco Chanel, fitting model


The last presenter was Virginia Millington, a recording & archive manager from the oral history organization Storycorps.   Just as with the Reanimation Library, Storycorps is not a specific fashion resource.  Yet the information to be gleaned from these amazing oral histories seems limitless.  In order to accommodate her audience for this talk, Millington did a quick search using key words such as “dress”, “fashion”, or “clothing”, the stories that she pulled up were fascinating.  One included an anecdote by a woman who had met Coco Chanel as a child while attending her grandmothers fitting for a jacket.  When spying the chain weight within the coat, she questioned the couturier who informed her that it was “the most important part” of the entire piece.  Additional searches pulled up a variety of intriguing stories that further illustrated the importance that clothing and dress maintains in personal identity for many.  In preparing for this symposium, Millington also discovered that while interviewees were reminiscing about the past, clothing often provided an entry point into deeper feelings and conversations about other aspects of their personal histories.

So what are we to make of all this?  Yes, technology and media are changing rapidly, and the amount of time and money that preserving materials from the past requires can be quite daunting.  While it’s so easy to find such value in everything, how are archivists, librarians, curators and historians supposed to decide which objects are worth the time and money to preserve? As an employee at a private archive that operates within the fashion industry for commercial reasons, and a student historian who values every ounce of information on items of material culture as important evidence, I often find myself at odds with this question.  I don’t know if there will ever be any one right answer or way to decide what information is most valuable, but we can only hope that we will find more efficient and interesting ways to document and preserve culture with time.

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  • Sarah April 15, 2011 06.28 am

    Excellent review Mellissa. I was sad to miss the LIM conference, but happy to hear that such important topics were raised. I work in the textiles department at a medium-size museum, and I too find myself at odds in the classification of some objects as “collection,” “study collection,” “deaccession” etc…especially since history has seen them all somehow survive. Yet with limited time and resources, we simply can’t treat everything the same, and so have to in some way “play God.”

    From a historiagraphical perspective, I also really enjoy seeing our archives of old museum photography, which consist of lots of slides and black and white photos with notations scrawled on them. Yet the slides take up an insane amount of space…how should we approach them? I think feasibly we can scan them and not lose a lot of the nuance that a silver gelatin print might have. But then…

  • Christina April 16, 2011 06.30 pm

    Glad to see this event treated to a thoughtful, detailed review!
    For a symposium tailored mostly to the interests to people within an ostensibly narrow, specialized field—fashion information professionals, what became apparent is what a diverse group of people, institutions and practices are involved in the dialogue.

    Although I enjoyed all of the speakers at Fashion: Now and Then, the funny thing is that the two presentations you had slightly critical feedback on were probably my favorite! Ron Knoth’s expansive history of Lester Gaba’s web of influences was a fascinating address of fashion as an a layer of time, which was an excellent frame for the symposium’s eclectic mix of speakers and types of information sources. Meanwhile, Molly Monosky, from Fairchild’s archives, gave what, for me, was perhaps the most immediately valuable perspective offered. As a photo archivist, myself, her inside dish and expert assessment of operating a repository of that size and importance was invaluable.

    Further proof of how far-reaching the specific interests, roles, and contexts for fashion information professionals are, and how complex a subject fashion itself is.

  • Molly April 18, 2011 10.42 am

    Hi Mellisa, I’m glad you enjoyed the event! I just want to clear some things up regarding that story I told at the end. The disposal of our pre-1972 photography was never a policy. The staff of Fairchild are unclear about exactly what happened and that I’ve gotten multiple accounts of the story. The disposal was never documented, and I can’t say with any certainty that it even happened in 1972. What I do know is that we have a limited amount of images, mainly portraits, dating back to the mid 1950’s.
    In addition, while the incident was unfortunate I would not characterize it as a loss of mass quantities of photography. While I have no way of knowing how many images were lost, photography in WWD was not that prevalent in the 20’s-40’s. Even up to the 1960’s the photography shared space with a lot of artful illustration. We’re working on preserving and scanning 3-4 million images, the bulk of which date to the 1970’s-1990’s. So we definitely have a LOT of surviving photography!
    The interesting thing about this whole story is that it’s sort of a clear cut illustration of how more and more companies are starting to see the value in archives and are taking steps to preserve the material they deem valuable. Today the Condé Nast and Fairchild Archives are prized by the company, so we’ve come a long way from this mistake. I’m reminded of this every day when dealing with the many editors who treat my collection and strict archival policies with nothing but respect and care despite unavoidable last minute requests and demanding deadlines.

  • Arianna April 18, 2011 10.54 am

    Thanks for covering the Richard Martin Symposium! It’s such a great celebration of the hard work of everyone in our program, and we were all so glad to see it so well-attended.
    Look out for it again next year; that class is another that is full of bright, ambitious students!

  • Mellissa April 18, 2011 05.43 pm

    Molly, Thank you so much for the thoughtful clarification! I think that your presentation– and the symposia in general–really did a successful job of demonstrating the inherent value of archives, and hopefully will continue to further this important dialogue well into the future.

  • Kimberli June 30, 2012 11.27 pm

    Reading through this website I was thrilled to find this article and your mention of the Richard Martin Symposium at NYU. Every year I will look forward to hearing the presentations of the future students of the program, as there is a wealth of topics yet to be researched and shared!


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