Fashion in the Museum: Discursive Spaces

Breaking the walls of the museum has become my manta, in my attempt to make the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection an accessible resource for students, faculty, and visitors. Like many transformational projects, the obstacles have been enormous and I continue to fight for support and recognition. This week I will be speaking at the Discursive Spaces conference, which is co-presented by Ryerson University School of Interior Design, the University of Leicester,  the University of Nottingham and  the Art Gallery of Ontario. This forum is intended to facilitate discussion about “the integration of art, design, and architecture in the creation of memorable and immersive museum experiences, while balancing the public’s expectations of self-directed expression and engagement”.

I rarely mention it, but I began my university studies in architecture at the University of Waterloo. My passion for architecture has never abated, and I continue to be acutely sensitive to the aesthetics and physicality of the space I am in, especially in museums. The nature of the space – scale, proportion, balance, flow, light – affects mood,  ease of movement and the level of engagement with the art or the objects contained therein.

For example, I found the experience of seeing the Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibition in Paris at the Musee d’Orsay to be very different from that I experienced when I saw the same exhibition in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The special exhibition gallery at the Musee d’Orsay has low ceilings and the galleries are long and narrow, such that museum visitors were funnelled through tight corridors and the rooms always seem crowded – even when they are not. As well, it was very difficult to step back to experience the beauty of the large-scale Impressionist works or to linger over the beautiful and fragile costumes on display.  The same exhibition shown in  the Metropolitan Museum of Art seemed altogether different with the  Met’s spacious galleries and elevated ceilings. The same paintings had room to breathe and were displayed in a way that highlighted their grandeur. It was the same show, but in different spaces had different effects. 

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, Gallery 1 Installation Shot, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, Gallery 1 Installation Shot,
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For the Discursive Spaces conference, I submitted a joint paper with architect Guela Solow about the project we undertook to break down the museum walls and redesign the physical space housing the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. To make the collection more accessible to students and faculty, it physically had to relocated within the School of Fashion, bringing it out of the seventh floor of the library, which was 20 minutes and two elevator rides away. Guela Solow, is Managing Principal of ARK, a Toronto-based architecture firm, and also my friend. She had used one of my photographs in another project for the hospice at the Princess Margaret Hospital and she undertook this  project at Ryerson on spec. She was not deterred by the very ugly space assigned to house the collection, which consisted of the very dirty, dark and dingy chemical darkrooms.


The Darkrooms Before Transformation

Using my photographs of historic pieces from the collection as a means of inexpensively transforming the space, her vision literally transformed this space into the centrepiece of the School of Fashion.  Although we received huge accolades from all that viewed the project, it will not come to fruition, because of funding issues at the university. Nevertheless, the conceptual underpinnings behind this project – an integration of architecture, fashion and photography – is a strong premise and worthy of further discussion. 

Provided below is an abstract of our presentation. If you live in Toronto, day passes to the event are available. Guela and I will be speaking at the AGO on Friday, June 21 at 330 pm.

A study collection, like a museum, is intended to educate and inspire, and may also serve to enhance teaching, research and outreach in the community. The Ryerson Fashion Research Collection is a repository of several thousand garments, accessories and other artifacts acquired by donation for study purposes in the School of Fashion. Garments as artifacts embody complex histories, and in donating a dress artifact or photograph to a collection, the donor entrusts the curator with the care and keeping of that object into the foreseeable future. Biographical information is not always known, available or recorded when an item is accepted into a collection, and yet it is the role of the curator of fashion to interpret a narrative, and to read time backwards, placing singular garments within a historical continuum. However, upon acceptance of a garment into a collection, the emotional connection to the donor is effectively reduced to an accession number, and the question becomes how to engage the student or scholar with the multi-faceted object biography as well as honour the donor’s narrative.

For the past decade, the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection has been housed behind an unmarked door on the seventh floor of the library and was not widely known within the student body. 

The Unmarked Door, LIB767

The Unmarked Door, LIB767

At the beginning of 2012, the Collection was largely inaccessible due to the volume of material piled into the storage facility, the degradation of the database and a lack of curatorial direction. Since that time, Ryerson University School of Fashion Collection Coordinator Ingrid Mida has undertaken the editing of the Collection, in an effort to transform this underutilized asset of the university into an accessible resource for students, faculty and visiting designers and researchers to use for design inspiration and material culture studies.

The proposed plans for the Ryerson Fashion Research Centre are the result of a shared vision between Ingrid Mida and Architect Guela Solow of ARK. This plan integrates art, design and architecture to dissolve the barriers of the museum by integrating the collection within the university environment. Weaving museum and school together, the facility design effectively removes the barriers between subject and object, artifact and viewer. Decentralizing the collection creates an experience that moves beyond immersion to active engagement. The architectural design inverts the typical division between “front” and “back-of-house” museum functions by accommodating storage, the archival process, and academic analysis within the educational arena, allowing fashion students to meaningfully connect with and interact with the Collection.

While not compromising the integrity of the artifacts, their photographic translation creates a secondary collection, which speaks to cultural outreach and threads itself into the architectural fabric of the greater university. Linking past and present as well as providing a double link between image and material, this photographic reinterpretation of the Collection provides insight, illumination and perspective – essential to an interpretive understanding of the beauty and fragility of the original pieces. Interwoven throughout the campus, photographic images clad the university itself in large-scale transparent fragments of garments and objects from the Collection; both illuminating the material relevance of the artifacts, as well as adorning the larger world in its memories.


Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, Conceptual Plan by ARK
Images by Ingrid Mida, Plan Courtesy of ARK


Edwards, Elizabeth (1999). “Photographs as Objects of Memory.” Material Memories: Design and Evocation. Eds. Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward, and Jeremy Aynstey. New York: Berg, 221-236.

Macleod, Suzanne (2012). Museum Making, Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions. London: Routledge.

Pearce, Susan. (1992). Museums, Objects and Collections: A Cultural Study. London: Leicester University Press.

Sandeil, Richard and Christina Kreps, eds. (2012). Museum Meanings. 2012. New York: Routledge.


Ingrid Mida, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada

Ingrid Mida, BA, MAcc, MA, is the Collection Co-ordinator of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. She initiated and undertook the editing of the Collection and has championed this project at Ryerson University. Ingrid is also a freelance photographer and writer, focusing on fashion in the museum.


Guela Solow, ARK, Toronto, Canada

Guela Solow graduated from the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto in 1985 and is a member of the Ontario Association of Architects.  Committed to the specific needs of the non-profit world, her work as Managing Principal of ARK, explores and challenges the boundaries of architecture beyond traditional disciplines to integrate urban, graphic and interior design with architecture, art and theory.  In addition to practicing architecture, Guela has taught design theory as Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto, lectured internationally and been the recipient of federal research grants.  Her work has received international acclaim and has been described by juries as “ an excellent example of the profound ability of art and architecture to transform space and the human experience”

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1 Comment

  • Mrs. Arthur L. Keith III July 21, 2013 05.38 pm

    I would like to involve young people and children at out local Public Library to visualize historical fashion through my own puppets and dolls in exhibits using library materials as a reference. Also to enhance reading levels and interest in fashion, theater, literature and history based on many ideas I have received through experiences gained in fashion at museums in St. Louis Art Museum, Phoenix Art Museum and in European Art Museums I have visited.
    I find this website very instructive, and created my first historical fashion doll made from a gourd. The character doll I designed was based on five years of doll classes and many years of sewing classes. ( And as well for inspiration from my grandmother who worked as a milliner and who worked for a Grace B. Pauley Clothing store for women. She also traveled as a buyer to NYC in the 1940’s and 1950’s to fashion shows.)
    This area I live in has many African American women who dress creatively and find them as well as the young people interested in history. I hope to create a exhibit on unusual clothing and style around a selected African American woman from the SE USA.


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