Domestic Affairs: Spotlight on FIDM Museum’s Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection

Consuelo Vanderbilt

It’s no secret that I am a fan of the FIDM Museum. Excellent collection and exhibitions, with free entry? Yes, please. I loved the museum long before I had the opportunity to work there (some of you may recall my disclaimer at the beginning of my first Domestic Affairs FIDM review). My undergraduate degree is in languages and linguistics and my master’s is in art history. This means that even while I was doing my master’s research and writing my thesis on dress history, I was self educating on the topic of fashion and textile history.

The FIDM Museum blog was one of my first tools for doing that. It was also a wonderful way to procrastinate on my actual papers during my master’s coursework — it was way more fun to actually go out and see what a Callot Soeurs, 1920s gown looked like than write a paper applying Walter Benjamin’s concept of “aura” to Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs. But, I digress.

It is also, to a certain extent, through FIDM that I became less of a dress history snob, and came to appreciate more recent fashion history (even, you know, this season’s) instead of refusing to look at anything past about 1840. This meant that working on their first traveling exhibition, Modern Love, was even more fun because I knew these contemporary pieces already, and now I was getting to see them up close.


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But if I’m honest, it is still the period from about 1780 – 1840 that most fascinates me (though I do occasionally moonlight and teach classes on 1890 – 1938, because Art Deco). So it is probably not a surprise that I spend an inordinate amount of time when I’m at the museum looking at the current display of the Helen Larson Historic Collection. It is where I can swoon over eighteenth-century men’s waistcoats, and even see an actual hair arrow. I know I’m not alone, because the image below was taken from former Worn Through contributor, Ingrid Mida’s post for us on the FIDM Museum collection, and there is an entire category on the FIDM Museum blog dedicated to posts on pieces from this amazing collection.

FIDM Cotton exhibition

A Century of Cotton: Selections from the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection, 1800-1900. FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Los Angeles. Loan courtesy of Jane Gincig & Pat Kalayjian. Photograph by Brian Sanderson. Copyright of FIDM

I really do not have words for how amazing this collection is, even having worked within sight of it. The Helen Larson Historic Fashion collection contains 1,400 pieces. Among them are objects worn by six queens, three empresses, ten princesses, and 21 haute couture gowns spanning 400 years of fashion history. My personal favorite is one on which museum curator, Kevin Jones, did a paper: a gown having belonged to Princess Charlotte of Wales (on the right below), George IV’s only legitimate child and heir, who died tragically during childbirth in 1817 (my favorite eras are the Regency and Romantic periods, I blame my mother’s introducing me to Jane Austen at an impressionable age).

Monarchy Lecture

Dress c. 1897 Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection

Dress c. 1897 Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection © FIDM Museum

But this is not the only piece that is name catching. The first Helen Larson Collection display I saw included one of Queen Victoria’s mourning gowns (above and below). It was astounding to realize I was mere inches from something worn by a woman who gave her name to an entire era of Western history. It also brought the woman startlingly to life. The evidence was there of eight pregnancies, and despite the two- to three-foot platform on which the garment was displayed, I was staring at what would have been her majesty’s shoulders. For some reason this clear evidence of Queen Victoria’s four-foot-seven-inch height (or lack thereof) made her more real than any history book ever could. It is one of the things that drew me to material culture, it brings the people of history to life.

Queen Victoria 1   Queen Victoria 3

It’s not merely British Royalty in the collection either. The image I opened this post with, which I repeat again below, belonged to none other than Consuelo Vanderbilt, and is remarkably similar to the gown she is wearing in the Boldini portrait included in the FIDM Museum blog post on the piece.

Consuelo Vanderbilt

Callot Soeurs Paris, France c. 1907 Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection © FIDM Museum


Consuelo Vanderbilt Boldini Copy

Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, and Her Son, Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill Giovanni Boldini 1906 Oil on canvas Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 47.71 Gift of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, 1946

My favorite of the couture gowns mentioned is the original iconic little black dress, made in about 1926 by Mademoiselle herself. Beaded (of course!), with a simple elegance of design that literally stopped me in my tracks (no photograph does it justice), the FIDM blog post on the piece admits that this was most definitely no Coco Chanel’s first little black dress (that was created in 1919), but it will now and forever be what I think of whenever anyone uses that phrase.

Coco Chanel c. 1926 Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection

Coco Chanel
c. 1926
Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection

Chanel detail

I’m featuring this collection this week for two reasons. First, while I unfortunately have to miss this year’s Annual Art of Television Costume Design exhibition, I am preparing for my early October trip to see (and then review) the current Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection display: Fleurs: Botanicals in Dress. As I have learned and worked more in the field of dress and textile history since graduating, I find myself drawn to the details: the hair arrow above, the delicate, intricate embroidery of the gown below (also, Romantic era, so double yes!). So I am very excited for this exhibition but have two months to wait before I can go down and see it. So, I am sating myself with other Larson Collection pieces in the meantime.

Day Dress British 1820s Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection

Day Dress
Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection

The second reason I am posting is because it is what I can do to help raise awareness within our community about this amazing collection, because it is in danger of being broken up and lost. The museum’s deadline for raising the funds to purchase the entire collection is fast approaching. For those interested in contributing, feel free to check out the #4for400 campaign  on the FIDM Museum blog, and if you can, please spread the word. And be sure to check back in October for my review of the latest Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection display!

Have any of you been to the FIDM Museum and seen the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection? What are your favorite pieces? Are there any collections in your local area that you love and feel should get more attention? Please share your thoughts below, or email me details so I can include them in a future column!

All images — except those taken by me while reviewing exhibitions — and all objects depicted courtesy and copyright of the FIDM Museum.

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