Going behind the scenes at a museum is a rare privilege. Lucky for me, the entire team at FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, California was welcoming and gracious during my recent visit. Curator Kevin Jones and Associate Curator Christina Johnson made me feel like they had oodles of time to answer my many questions about their museum and study collections. “I want the whole museum to be about accessibility,” said Kevin Jones, “we welcome visiting researchers here.”
The origins of the FIDM Museum collection can be traced to 1973 when instructors of the Fashion Design Department raided “their personal closets to assemble the fledgling museum’s first collection”. The intent was to offer garments for students to be able to “understand textile drape, pattern structure, and finishing techniques,”, and the collection was maintained by library staff. In 1978, the collection was formalized as a museum with non-profit status and this attracted important donations such as garments from Betsy Bloomingdale and the Rudi Gernreich Archive. By 1997, the collection had grown to 10,000 objects and was separated from the Library into its own department. In 1999, former grad Kevin Jones arrived on the scene to become collection manager, and in 2002 became curator. Much to my surprise, I learned that Kevin undertook a radical transformation of the collection at that time, sorting through the entire archive and de-accessioning a significant number of unwanted pieces. In the intervening 11 years, Kevin has edited the collection four times, each time endeavoring to improve the quality of both the Permanent and Study collections. This collection now rivals the world’s best with 15,000 items of fashionable dress, including significant items of couture and important historical artifacts spanning over 200 years of history.
Although here is no formal acquisition policy, Kevin and Christina look for items that have “cultural significance or something that sets it apart in terms of construction, textile, or embellishment.” In 2011, there was an exhibition and catalogue called FABULOUS! Ten Years of FIDM Museum Acquisitions that featured the ‘most fabulous’ items donated or acquired from 2000-2010. The cover of the 370 page catalogue showcases a close-up photo of the lace from an evening gown called “The Peacock Dress” by Alexander McQueen, F/W 2008-2009. This breathtaking dress was specially commissioned for the FIDM Museum and was one of the last gowns made that McQueen actually designed himself. Only three such gowns exist, and having seen it in the FIDM Museum storage facility, I can attest that it is truly a sight to behold!
An exciting acquisition in the works is The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection, which includes 1,200 rare and beautiful historic dress artifacts. The late Helen Larson was an avid collector of period dress and her private archive includes many rare and near perfect examples of clothing and accessories, including garments worn by Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra, couture pieces from designers like Worth, Poiret, Fortuny, Vionnet and Chanel that were purchased from Doris Langely Moore (the founder of the Fashion Museum in Bath, England). Their friendship and correspondence is documented in letters that are part of the archive and make this collection a very important one in the history of dress. Some of these objects are currently on display in the exhibition A Century of Cotton: Selections from The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection, 1800-1900.
Although I find my work as Collection Co-ordinator at Ryerson University immensely rewarding, there are lots of frustrating moments. Knowing the challenges that Kevin has faced over the years – including space, storage, time constraints, budgets, conservation issues – gave me hope that the vision I have to transform the Ryerson collection might actually be possible. Although it might never rival that of the FIDM Museum, my aim is to make the Fashion Research Centre at Ryerson University an open and accessible resource for students, faculty, and visiting researchers to examine historic garments firsthand, to benefit from seeing the details of cut, construction, and embellishment, as well as to explore aspects of material culture and to discover the stories that live in the folds, the seam allowances, and the hems.