Fashion in the Museum: Where do I begin?

As the new “Fashion in the Museum” columnist for Worn Through, I feel that same strange mix of excitement and dread that I feel before I begin each new project. Whatever it is – an article, a paper, a research project, or an exhibition – there is the weight of the unknown.

There was a lot of uncertainty when I took on the enormous task of editing the Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University in Toronto. This study collection, which was founded in 1981, consisted of several thousand garments, accessories and artifacts acquired by donation. For several years, this collection lay dormant behind an unmarked door and was largely unknown by the student body. In the past year, I have substantially edited the collection, making it a much smaller but more focused collection of dress and accessories. I am working towards re-establishing it as an open and accessible resource tool for students and faculty in the School of Fashion as well as for visiting designers and outside researchers.

I’ve been asked many times how I was able to tackle this project, and sometimes I wonder that myself. When I first walked into the facility, there were racks and racks of clothing crammed together with no discernable method of organization, piles of boxes and bins on the floor, and a corrupted database. I approached the task in the same way I approach all seemingly insurmountable tasks – one day at a time, one task at a time. I worked through each box, bin and rack, sorting through piles of unremarkable items to find the treasures, which include rare historic pieces dating as far back as 1860, some obscure labels from Canadian fashion history, as well as valuable couture items from Dior, Balmain and Balenciaga.

19th century Black beaded Pelerine (Capelet)
Ryerson Fashion Research Collection 2006.04.02
Photo by Ingrid Mida

It was tiring, dusty, back-breaking, and lonely work. There were many days that I felt utterly overwhelmed by what I had taken on, and sometimes I had to regroup or to reach out to people like Gillion Carrera at the Fashion Resource Centre at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Valerie Steele at FIT Museum, and other friends and allies at university study collections for advice and support. I am far from finished in my work to re-establish the Collection, and I continue to approach the enormous challenges ahead — one day at a time.

My inter-disciplinary background and prior experiences in working as a curator, photographer, project manager, writer, and curatorial research assistant come together in my role as Collection Co-ordinator at Ryerson University. In this job, I wear many hats – curator, registrar, manager, conservator — and perhaps most importantly as cheerleader for the Collection.

This is the background I will bring to my column on “Fashion in the Museum” for Worn Through. Living in Toronto, I have ready access to a variety of exhibitions related to textiles and dress at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Textile Museum of Canada, and the Bata Shoe Museum as well as a host of regional museums like the Joseph Brant Museum and the Fashion History Museum. I make a point to travel, combining work and pleasure by visiting conferences and museums in cities like Paris, London and New York in order to stay current with trends in exhibition design related to dress and advances in material culture research.

Royal Ontario Museum, Gallery of Costume and Textiles
BIG Exhibition, November 2012 – Fall 2013, Photo by Ingrid Mida 2012

Some of you may know my name from my blog Fashion is my Muse! where I explored the intersection of fashion, art, history, books and life from 2008-2012. I am thrilled to become part of the team at Worn Through, and I look forward to being part of an ongoing conversation about fashion in the museum.

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