Global Mode: Maiyet via Robin Givhan

Anton Onyango Otiende and Benta Otiende, metalsmiths from Kenya. Photograph copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images.

In February, Robin Givhan wrote a very interesting piece for The Cut about so-called “ethical fashion,” with Maiyet as a case study. The twist in that company’s luxury womenswear offerings is that they are produced not only by real, life artisans, but that said artisans hail from struggling countries or live in areas with few economic opportunities. Part of the profits support the establishment of the metalsmiths, the embroiderers, and the seamstresses as independent, profitable artisans in India, Kenya, Peru, and other places where hand craft skills are still practiced.

In her piece, Givhan dives into the qualifications of the founding partners, lists the big-name backers (Disney, Branson, etc), and has written a meaningful, timely piece on the effectiveness of the “ethical” brands we all love to support.

She outlines my pet protest:

The world of philanthropy has long known how to use Seventh Avenue to spur donations and raise our collective consciousness. Charities have inspired what might be called “pity purchases,” a transaction driven by liberal guilt, lefty do-goodism, or a host of other politically correct motivations rather than that most potent and enduring driver of obscenely priced fashion: pure, unadulterated desire. But ethical fashion still carries the stigma of being inelegant, precious, and a bit twee—unlike in the food industry, say, where customers eagerly pay a premium for farm-to-table bragging rights.

Examines the wonderfully real difficulties of working with craftspeople in global environments:

And then, says [Paul] Van Zyl, there are the silk weavers in India who work out of their homes and can’t work when the temperature soars because, without air conditioning, it’s too hot, and if the doors are left open, the goats come inside and get themselves tangled in the looms, and, well, it’s the kind of mess that the folks over at Hermès don’t have to worry about.

And concludes:

Not everyone can shop at luxury price points, but it’s there that mythology is born and reputations are built. If the luxury market can fetishize Lesage embroidery, can it not come to do the same with Varanasi silk?

"David Mulinga, Richard Ochieng, and the second Richard Ochieng." Photographs copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images, 2014.

“David Mulinga, Richard Ochieng, and the second Richard Ochieng.” Photographs copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images, 2014.

What I rather liked about this article was that the photographs accompanying the piece were of Kenyan craftspeople and the pieces they made for Maiyet. No CEO business headshot or “site visit” with a gaggle of smiling children. Givhan’s words were strengthened by portraits of Kenyan “partners” of the label, including the couple Maiyet first invested in through the Nest nonprofit. Givhan’s piece was about the business and product sides of Maiyet, but considering their apparently genuine interest in making small businesspeople visible and viable, it was nice to see the artisans lead the visual aspect of the article (accompanied by the obligatory magazine product-layout).

Watch videos about Maiyet artisans on their website here; how do beautifully-made media enhance the customer experience?

The portraits by Guillaume Bonn reminded me immediately of the work of Jim Naughten, known across the internet for his portraits of Hereros in their unique dress, featured on Worn Through in 2012.

From the “Herero” series by Jim Naughten, 2012. Photo copyright Jim Naughten, 2012.

From the “Herero” series by Jim Naughten, 2012. Photo copyright Jim Naughten, 2012.

Although I admire the Hereros series, and it may be unfair to compare the two photographic intentions, it is heartening to see people photographed for what they do, not what they wear. In their everyday dress (or work clothes?), accompanied by their tools and materials, these are just people! Very talented people, of course. I wonder if the photographs were taken outside of the Maiyet studio, or if the background was intentionally “neutral”?

How do you see “ethical fashion” companies portraying and representing their artisans and producers? Is it important that they are photographed, named, interviewed? Or is that another form of fetishization? Do you ask the same of your favorite small European brands or American producers (or would you have seven years ago)?

Leave your comments below!


Lead Photograph: Anton Onyango Otiende and Benta Otiende, metalsmiths from Kenya. Photograph copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images, 2014.


Anarchists of Style…Muse Edition: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, an eccentric artist living in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1910s, exemplified the disillusioned artistic movement of Dadaism through her lifestyle and garb often comprised of an array of found or stolen objects. She ran with the likes of Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Heap wrote that she was “the only one living anywhere who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada.” Few images of the Baroness’ fashions survive, the true picture of her being painted by descriptive testimonials that inspire mainstream fashion in a way that von Freytag-Loringhoven no doubt would have despised.

Click here for more Worn Through coverage of the Baroness.

Baroness - Comme Fall 2012 RTW

Comme des Garcons, Fall 2012

“So she shaved her head. Next she lacquered it a high vermillion. Then she stole the crepe from the door of a house of  mourning and made a dress out of it.”[1]


Elle Fanning for New York, February 18, 2014

“I went to the consulate with a large-wide sugarcoated birthday cake upon my head with fifty flaming candles lit – I felt just so spunky and afluent [sic]!” [2]

Baroness - Agatha Ruiz

Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, F/W 2009

“She stood before me quite naked—or nearly so. Over the nipples of her breasts were two twin tomato cans, fastened with a green string about her back. Between the tomato cans hung a very small bird-cage and a crestfallen canary.” [3]


[1] Gammel, I. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002.

[2] von Freytag-Loringhoven, Elsa. Undated letter to Djuna Barnes.

[3] Gammel, I. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002.





Domestic Affairs: California Happenings

Sarah Mtn


In my last column, I discussed a number of events that were coming up in March and April. Virginia Postrel informed me via the comments that in addition to Hollywood Costume, the Phoenix Art Museum is mounting their own look at red carpet gowns, Hollywood Red Carpet – a fantastic accompaniment to the Hollywood Costume exhibition, conceived and curated by curator Dennita Sewell.

Not to be biased — though I do live here — but there are several happenings this month, here in California in case you live here as well, or are planning a West Coast trip.

This past weekend, CSA-Western Region had an event touring the legendary Western Costume company followed by a visit to FIDM Museum’s 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. As mentioned in my review last month, the exhibition includes costumes from The Great Gatsby, which won the Academy Award for best Costume Design, and 12 Years A Slave, which won best picture. I was not able to attend this event, but  if any of you were able to attend this event, please feel free to share your impressions or experience in the comments below, or email me directly!

While not strictly fashion- or dress-studies related, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach opened their exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s personal collection of photos: Frida Kahlo, Her Photos. Most of the images were taken by her father and grandfather, pioneers in the field of photography, and are a wonderful insight into the artist’s personal, private world, including Frida’s own unique, indigenous-inspired style.

At the Walt Disney Family Museum, in the Presidio in San Francisco, tickets have gone on sale for Colleen Quen’s 19 April Illustration Workshop: “Couture fashion and Watercolor Design”. According to Ms Quen, she will be discussing “how fashion and costume design are integral in creating character,” and she will teach attendees how to incorporate watercolour and ink into their own drawings and designs. Their workshop this month on female animators sold out, so get tickets now!

At the Lacis Museum in Berkeley, their exhibition, Smocking: Manipulating Fabric and Beyond opened on 8 March and will be up until October. My opening image is from their website. I will definitely be making my way there before it closes. There is also a CSA-WR meet-up scheduled for 22 March, so if you would like to attend with CSA, email me and I will put you in touch with the organizers! Otherwise, it looks like a fantastic exhibit if you have the time. Look for my review here, soon.

In San Jose, Metamorphosis: Clothing & Identity is still on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. The exhibition is getting lots of attention, and was recently written up in Selvedge magazine. There will also be a Fiber Talk & trunk show by three contributors to the show, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Jean Cacicedo, and Janet Lipkin next week on 30 March. I suspect this will be a very popular event, so be sure to buy tickets quickly.

I do have news of one non-California event: in New York, Fern Mallis’s latest Fashion Icon talk will be with John Varvatos on 27 March at the Kaufmann Concert Hall.

As always, if you have been to any of these events and would like to share your experience, or if you have additional information to add, feel free to leave a comment! I love hearing about any North American events I may have missed — it’s a big continent and there’s no way I can find everything! — so feel free to let me know about them either in the comments or by email.



2nd Annual Research Award Winners!

We were so thrilled to be able to offer our research award again this year.

This is the second time we’ve offered the award and once again there were smart and thoughtful entries. For 2014 we made some changes and offered one award for a student and one for a working professional.

If you’re wondering, the money comes from advertisers. So, please consider advertising if you work for a school, a museum, an auction house, a costume house, a publisher, or something of that nature that appeals to readers. Your money goes to a good cause!

The award is to help support researchers in apparel fields for travel, publishing, presenting, image rights, interviews, or other things of that nature. (It does not go to institutions, strictly individuals or teams).

This year’s winners are:

Susan Neill
She is using the funds to assist with a research trip to the Fashion Institute of Technology for her project on Couturier Bob Bugnand. That project is being presented at CSA and submitted for publication soon.

Sophie Pitman
She is using the funds to assist with her research at the Museum of London into Elizabethan and Jacobean clothing. She plans to help do cataloging for the museum. This work will then inform her PhD thesis.

Best wishes to them both and we look forward to their blog posts here on Worn Through detailing their experiences. Also thank you again to all who applied and we encourage you to apply again next year.


You Should Be Reading: Fashion and Individuality

fashion books from

Traditionally, fashion has both celebrated and punished individuality. Over the years, men and women have been mocked for particular fashions that at other times are quite popular. We are often encouraged to be unique and be “ourselves”, but to do so within certain boundaries. In contemporary society, there is an enormous variety of styles and aesthetic ideals, almost to to the point of rendering individuality impossible. What does it mean to be an individual in today’s fashion world? What do we expect from our fashion retailers in this regard? What about from our fashion models? These three articles below explore those questions, addressing styles like the now ubiquitous Converse All Stars, the concept of fast fashion co-branding (driven by consumers’ need for uniqueness), and the once derided maxillary midline diastema (AKA “gap teeth”), which has in recent years become the calling card of several high fashion models. We hope you enjoy!

1. Lewis, K. C., Sherriff, M., & Denize, E. S. (2014). Change in frequency of the maxillary midline diastema appearing in photographs of Caucasian females in two fashion magazines from 2003 to 2012. Journal of Orthodontics, doi 10.1179/1465313313Y.0000000081.

The objective of this study is to ascertain if there has been a change in the frequency of appearance of maxillary midline diastema in two leading women’s fashion magazines over a decade. Two observers counted the frequency of maxillary midline diastema that appeared in Caucasian female models featured in British Vogue and Glamour (UK). An increase in the frequency of maxillary midline diastema appearing in both publications was observed between 2003 and 2012. This change may indicate an increase in the acceptance of the maxillary midline diastema, which may in turn influence orthodontic and aesthetic dentistry treatment planning. – Paraphrased Article Abstract

2. Mackinney-Valentin, M. (2014). Mass-individualism: Converse All Stars and the paradox of sartorial sameness. Clothing Cultures, 1(2), 127-142.

Through a study of Converse All Stars sneakers, this article explores an apparent paradox in the notion of ‘individuality’ in current fashion consumption where the potential freedom of choice among consumers in Denmark appears to have led to a sartorial sameness rather than radical pluralism. The concept of mass-individualism is used as a vehicle for understanding this paradox that is heightened both by the social value attributed to individuality in much of contemporary Western society and the image of All Stars as a symbol of individuality and self-expression. The concept is seen as part of an ambiguous strategy of status representation operating on conditions of fashion democracy. The study is interview-based and focuses on consumers aged seven to 71 in the greater Copenhagen area in which All Stars may be considered a transplanted, American cultural icon. Themes of undercoding and visual assemblage run through the exploration of mass-individualism in contemporary fashion. – Full Article Abstract 

3. Shen, B., Jung, J., Chow, P-S., & Wong, S. (2014). Co-branding in fast fashion: The impact of consumers’ need for uniqueness on purchase perceptionFashion Branding and Consumer Behaviors, 101-112.

Co-branding is deemed as an effective strategy of brand development and has been largely adopted by fast fashion brands such as H&M. A fast fashion brand collaborating with a luxury designer fashion brand is recognized as “fast fashion co-branding.” This study explores the consumers’ need for uniqueness and purchase perception of fast fashion co-brands, which also relates to the consumers satisfaction and welfare. A self-administered survey questionnaire was employed in main shopping areas in Hong Kong and 175 valid respondents were obtained. The empirical results show that the consumers’ needs for uniqueness among the associated fashion brands have significant differences. The impact of their need for uniqueness on the purchase perception of fast fashion co-brands is also revealed. This study gives an important implication of fast fashion co-brands on consumer-purchasing behavior and provides managerial insights to companies’ co-branding strategies centered on fashion brands of different brand positioning. – Full Article Abstract 


Image Credit:


CFP: Creatures of Comfort, 1650-1950

Rienzi, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s house museum for European decorative arts, celebrates its 15th anniversary as a public collection with the symposium, “Creatures of Comfort: 1650-1950.” By examining the period from 1650 to 1950, how and why did the concept of comfort evolve and become an important part of European and American cultures? What objects, inventions, aesthetic or cultural changes improved ones’ physical or emotional well-being simply by making life more comfortable?

Rienzi houses a significant European collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, porcelain, and silver from the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries. Built in 1953 as a residence and now a house museum, Rienzi evokes the fine European country houses of the 18th century with formal, yet comfortable, furnishings, entertaining and private spaces, and rooms specifically designed for the enjoyment of family and friends. Rienzi also retains many modern amenities such as central air conditioning, a dishwasher, an elevator and other luxurious essentials that defined the ultimate comforts in America in the 1950s.

The “Creatures of Comfort: 1650-1950” symposium offers academics and emerging scholars an opportunity to explore the ever-changing role of comfort in European and American cultures. The symposium will take place at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from Friday, September 19, 2014, through Sunday, September 21, 2014.

Call for Papers

We invite masters, doctorial students and emerging scholars to direct all submissions to  Selected participants will be notified by July 1, 2014. Participants will be offered a $600 travel and lodging stipend.  All presentations will be given on Saturday, September 20, and Sunday, September 21, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Deadline for abstracts: May 1, 2014

Abstract length: 400 words outlining a twenty-minute presentation, along with a current CV

Possible themes of investigation may include, but are not limited to:

  • Interiors
  • Design
  • Architecture
  • Dining
  • Privacy

Leisure Activities

  • Etiquette
  • Gender
  • Costume
  • Travel
  • Technology
  • Economics 

The keynote address will be given on Friday, September 19,2014 by Dr. Joan DeJean, Cultural Historian and Trustee Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research includes the cultural history and the material culture of late 17th- and early 18th-century France.  She is the author of ten books on French literature, history, and material culture, including, The Essence of Style, How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, and SophisticationThe Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began, and her most recent publication, How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City.


On Teaching Fashion: When English Is Your Second Language

Teaching in a university setting is challenging at times but when you are not teaching in your native language it brings about new challenges. Speaking is our primary method of communication in the classroom and being a teacher demands that we are able to be understood by our students. When this is a struggle for either the teacher or the student, the learning outcomes are compromised. Since English is my second language, I purposefully speak slowly and clearly during my lectures. English is my primary method of reading, writing, and speaking these days and I don’t have a noticeable accent. I grew up with parents that do have a very strong accent, which of course never bothered me. What did bother me is when I saw that others were confused at what they said or told them they couldn’t understand what they just said. My mother, a former teacher, had a student burst out in the middle of her lecture saying that he couldn’t understand what she was saying because of her accent. Her response was: “I don’t have an accent-you have an accent!” This quickly diffused the situation and everyone laughed. It also gave her an opportunity to announce that if anyone needs her to repeat anything they should just raise their hand and she will be happy to do so. She was also supplementing her lessons with handouts and slide show presentations.


On Teaching photographed by Tre Miles

I think being a good teacher includes knowing that not all students learn the same way, accent or not. Having a typed copy of the presentation for the students to follow along with your lecture, handouts, writing key terms on the board are all helpful for any teacher. But these tools are essential when communication problems may occur. You have to make sure that you announce to your students, especially undergraduates, that it is okay if they need you to repeat something that you said. Graduate students may also be hesitant to ask you to repeat yourself, as they may not want to seem rude. Perhaps even making a joke about a word you struggle with as an example for students to see that repeating yourself does not bother you, and the lesson plans will not be compromised.

If a student hasn’t had much exposure to a person with an accent, they may not be as comfortable or maybe not have experience in making an effort to understand a person who sounds different from others in their life. We want the student to be focused on the content of the lesson, not the way it sounds. If a student misunderstands a word or two, it shouldn’t make a big impact since we want them to be focusing on understanding the concept. However, for those of us with an accent, it is worth exploring this because after every semester, each student will fill out a course instructor survey, or teacher evaluation. This information is then used for promotion, a pay raise, and is a deciding factor if the teacher is rehired for another semester. An example of a survey question could be “Has the instructor communicated information effectively?”, which the student will have to rate either Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, or Strongly Agree. Students are also able to leave comments and I have heard from colleagues that they have seen comments such as “the way she speaks makes it difficult to understand” or that they “aren’t able to do well in the course because the teacher doesn’t speak proper English and I can’t understand”.

There is an article out right now discussing how to acclimate international students to campus. The article notes that they “challenge faculty to alter their traditional teaching methods by varying their lecture styles and talking speeds, adding visuals to presentations and to play into different learning styles. (Also noted), that international students don’t often participate the same way American students do, and might be uncertain when it comes to expectations.” It is a great read for those of you that have an international student working with you. I recently heard from another faculty member at a different university about her experience with team teaching a course in which “the TA had such a strong accent that the students in that section complained of inequities which led to some adjustments for the semester to balance things”. Being able to understand how an international student may feel and having solutions to work with any limitations is important for the whole department. Most universities have small graduate student numbers, so we should actively help international students to ensure that they will be successful in their coursework and complete the program.


Pattermaking students photographed by Karen Bravo

On a related note, I learned patternmaking using the English System of Measurements and not the metric system. I currently teach patternmaking in one of my courses and have seen bewildered international student faces look back at me when I point out the ¼” measurement used along the neckline. I’ve started to explain our measurement system to all students and point to the ruler when talking about each point. I know this is important for international students, but it also helps the others get use to the new equipment they’ll be using in the classroom. Ultimately, I want all the students to be familiar with both styles of measuring since it’ll be essential for students to work internationally in the future. I am curious which measuring system apparel design teachers are using. I’d also love to hear your experience with English as a second language in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.


Historical Dress on the Small Screen: The Great British Sewing Bee

‘I watched Bake Off and couldn’t believe how upset people got,’ Chinelo says. ‘Now I totally understand. At one point I couldn’t even thread a needle, my hands were shaking so much.’[1]

The statement above was made by Chinello, one of ten contestants taking part in a BBC television programme called The Great British Sewing Bee, currently on air here in the UK.  This second series succeeds the first in both size and grandeur.  While the first was set over four episodes and located in a Georgian building in the heart of Dalston, East London, this one contains eight episodes and places more contestants in a lofty but grander converted warehouse by the Thames, offering everyone panoramic views of the capital city at the front while at the back, there is an extensive, well stocked haberdashery at their disposal.

The Great British Sewing Bee invites the participants to take part in weekly sewing challenges, which finds them spending two days completing three tasks: make a basic pattern, customize a piece of ready made clothing and finally making their own pattern, which must fit to a live model.  Their efforts are judged not by an audience vote but by two authoritative figures, who in this case are a Woman’s Institute sewing teacher with more than forty years of experience teaching and a director of a successful tailoring company located in Savile Row, London.  A television host, whose fundamental role is to mediate between the novice participants and the expert judges on behalf of the viewer, also joins them.

Contestants on The Great British Sewing Bee, Series 2

Each week, the two judges decide which contestant must leave the competition, based upon their performance across the three set challenges.  The most concise and in-depth review of the programme can be found in The Daily Telegraph, where Kate Bussman highlights how the nature of television production creates much tension for the contestants as they are constantly required to stop their sewing for ongoing sound bites, camera shots and set pieces.

For me, the most interesting contestant in The Great British Sewing Bee is Chinello, a twenty-six year old dressmaker who does not use paper patterns, having learnt to cut forms directly onto the cloth.  Chinello’s approach to clothesmaking is riveting because she engages with fabric directly, choosing not to mediate the process with the use of representational tools such as paper patterns.  Her process involves thinking and working with design in a very three-dimensional way; Chinello is like a living, breathing 3D printer.

The setting for the series is an old Thameside warehouse, seen here in the background while Chinello, one of the contestants, is cutting out her pattern in the foreground.

Another fascinating part of the programme is the way in which the historical context and social commentary about dress is approached.  Every week there is a theme explored, which might be a particular era or the type of material being used in the sewing challenges, such as stretchy fabric or patterned textiles.  The television host then engages with a range of scholars and academics to discuss interesting aspects of that weekly theme.  This part is fascinating because they draw upon a range of scholarly disciplines, from anthropology to consumption studies to performance and fashion, in an effort to contextualise the weekly challenges set for the contestants.

Prof. Giorgio Riello, Textile Historian, who discusses the advent of chintz and printed cottons in the 18th century

The Great British Sewing Bee provides us with a contemporary snapshot of academic interest in fashion, dress and textile studies. Craik’s (2009:264) identification of five types of fashion writing – language of fashion, fashion reportage, promotional writing, critical writing and intellectual analysis – makes no mention of the representation of these studies within the media of television yet it seems that in this one programme, there is visual evidence of all types of fashion writing taking place.[2]

My interest in fashion and dress television programmes, particularly with a focus on historical context and cultural commentary, has its roots in a childhood spent avidly watching The Clothes Show each week.  The Clothes Show was this unique mix of contemporary affairs and intellectual discussion about fashion and dress but whose content has now been taken over by the internet or reality television programmes that concentrate on how to improve the individual identities of ordinary people through fashion and dress.  These would include Trinny and Susannah’s What Not to Wear, How to Look 10 Years Younger or Gok Wan’s How to Look Naked, to name but a few of a growing genre focused upon the daily anxiety of colloquial dress.

While the Great British Sewing Bee has a lineage that certainly relates it to reality television programmes (its sister production is The Great British Bake Off), it does go some way to filling the gap left by the likes of The Clothes Show with its efforts to discuss and inform the viewer about the wider scholarly interest in fashion and dress.  In future, it could be part of a small archive of British television programmes that focus on fashion and dress history, perhaps beginning with Doris Langley-Moore’s What We Wore in 1957.  I would be very grateful to hear of reading suggestions on the subject of historical dress and its representation through the medium of television.  With the increasing complexity of internet coverage, it seems there is still a place for television to capture our attention with contextual discussion of dress and fashion for longer than just a brief click.  Research into how this is done, with particular reference to the second half of the 20th century, is definitely worth further consideration.

[1] [Accessed 10 March 2014]

[2] Jennifer Craik (2009) Fashion: The Key Concepts Oxford, Berg


Museum Life: Making the unseen visible

Making or modifying mannequins for exhibition is just one facet of the work we do in our field.  Once placed in the public space of the gallery, these dressed forms are perhaps the most visually communicative, tangible, comprehensible, and immediate vehicles to inform the public about our objects of study.  The history of the mannequin and the choice of mannequins and what that particular decision conveys has been the subject of much discussion on Worn Through, as well as strategies for properly preparing mannequins to safely receive and support a garment.  Hayley-Jane’s recent post discusses the use of invisible forms in the Azzedine Alaia exhibit at the Palais Galléria and the problems inherent in this approach, which essentially erases the visible female body or the body of a particular individual from the discourse of the history, production, or the experience of clothes.

As many Worn Through readers know, making a mannequin look good is no swift exercise—it is hardly ever straightforward, and it is no accident (although trial and error can often lead to unexpected, favorable results). This work results in a deeper knowledge of the garment and how it hangs, reacts to handling, looks on a human form, and was constructed and worn by its former owner(s). It involves the process of gaining knowledge of the material object that is essential to its understanding.

Unlike many of the museums discussed or featured on Worn Through, displays of costumes or textiles at my home institution generally occur once every three or four years, depending upon the particular exhibition’s theme and the curator’s choice to include costumes or textiles (there are, on average, three major exhibitions per year). In 2010, nine film costumes were shown in the main gallery for the exhibition Making Movies—unprecedented in the exhibition history at the Ransom Center.

Eight of nine costumes on display in the exhibition, Making Movies, 2010 Harry Ransom Center

Eight of nine costumes on display in the exhibition, Making Movies, 2010
Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

This year there will be costumes or clothing displayed in two consecutive exhibitions, so mannequins and support for costume is very much on my mind and immediate task list.

An exhibition display may please and wow an audience, but is the work that we do to achieve these effects really communicated? And is it necessary to do so? The topic of mannequins is often discussed solely amongst ourselves as professionals–in workshops, conference presentations, and during private conversations with each other.  In recent years, I’ve noticed a proliferation of efforts to convey this complex and vital work to the public in recent years, mainly through the avenue of the blog.  I’ll discuss a few examples below.

In 2009, FIDM presented a post on the building and design of their invisible forms for the exhibition, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture.  The final photo of carefully shaped mannequins, odd and somewhat alien-looking, was very intriguing to me.

"Floating" forms created by Carolyn Jamerson for the FIDM exhibition, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture (2009) Reproduced from FIDM blog post, 11/23/2009

“Floating” forms created by Carolyn Jamerson for the FIDM exhibition, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture (2009)
Reproduced from FIDM blog post, November 23, 2009

I would love to see such created and modified mannequins brought naked, so to speak, into the gallery space. Often period underpinnings are displayed in the gallery, but a small exhibition of garments and their accompanying mounts (the latter at half scale, perhaps, as they are very time-consuming to make), would be very interesting to show the audience.  Or, a period underpinning and the “museum equivalent” that is pared down to the necessary support, made from archival materials and devoid of embellishment, would be an instructive juxtaposition. It could also be visually interesting–the garments alive with color, pattern, or textural trim compared side-by-side with the largely reserved colors of beige or ivory of the archival mannequins/undergarments.

A recent post from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s conservation department treats us to striking photos of the beautiful underpinnings and supports created for a 19th century wedding gown, along with the unexpected tools and hands-on techniques of mannequin modification.  Photos such as this may help to dismantle the assumption that most of this work is precious and delicate (although, of course, much of it demands a delicate and experienced hand!)

Three videos of the final installation of the LACMA exhibition, Fashioning Fashion, at Les Arts Décoratifs last year (reviewed by Hayley-Jane here) shows glimpses of the often untold story of couriering a traveling show, from the crates arriving to the unpacking and condition reporting to the dressing and final placement in the gallery.  While all of these unseen activities are shown, the views are fleeting and without further voice-over explanation. The videos are beautifully lit and shot, with accompanying music that lends a magical, otherworldly feel to the visuals.  Overall, it is an idealized view of installation that shows the delicate final touches only.  Of course, these videos serve the purpose of enticing visitors to the gallery, not necessarily educating the audience about the tasks of couriering and installation.  But they do definitely convey that this is detailed, methodical, and, preferably, slow work (given the breakneck pace of most exhibition installation schedules).

A video post from Indianapolis Museum of Art has the same spirit but takes a different approach, utilizing real-time sound for a video on exhibition prep for the 2010-2011 exhibition, Body Unbound: Contemporary Couture from the IMA’s CollectionWith the soundtrack of various power tools, the curator’s voice, and startling images of mannequin decapitation under bright workroom lights, this video shows the nitty-gritty of exhibition preparation.  It also demonstrates that mounting contemporary clothing (widely assumed to be easy-breezy to place on ready-made retail mannequins) can be pretty complicated.

Real-time sounds of the fabric moving, murmurs of discussion and problem-solving, or sounds of installation are often absent from such behind-the-scenes presentations, replaced by voice-over narration or music (or, are necessarily absent by format, as in still images).  Granted, no one really wants the added stress of a camera turned on them during tense moments such as lifting a heavy garment up on a platform, or closing up a fragile bodice, but I would like to see (and do!) this type of approach to “behind-the-scenes” content more often.

A recently closed exhibition at the Texas State Library and Archives here in Austin marked the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and included the suit worn by Governor John Connally. The suit jacket and shirt are visceral reminders of the violence of that day, evidenced by the bullet holes and blood stains.  In addition to archival materials detailing the events and media reactions, one wall case displayed photographs taken by staff and a description of the mannequin-making and mounting process for the shirt and suit.  Techniques outlined in Lara Flecker’s excellent resource, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting are evident in the photographs.

I was disappointed to hear from several people who visited the exhibit that they felt puzzled and slightly annoyed by the photographs—did they run out of material? Why didn’t they show more archival material related to the assassination? Who cares how the suit was mounted?  There is a perception that this work is somehow separate from the interpretation and the intellectual content of the clothing.  And yet these are the archival materials that make the interpretation and presentation of compelling three-dimensional archival materials such as clothing possible.

As pointed out by scholars Alexandra Palmer and Lou Taylor, the process of preparing mounts and garments for display and caring for garments within the museum may be fairly categorized as “women’s work” (as historically most curators and practitioners in this area have been women, and because of the traditionally categorized work of sewing and caring for clothing), but, because of this it is unfairly disparaged as frivolous work or “playing dress up” (which also recalls the debates of theoretical versus material culture approaches to dress) (Taylor, 2002; Palmer, 2008). Palmer has further asserted that the relentless pace of changing exhibitions leaves little time for serious research for the curator, and has called for a demystification of museum work, which can demonstrate for the public the challenges in display and care we face every day.

Obviously, we can’t control the perceptions of those who may view our work as fussy or irrelevant, but we can attempt to change these perceptions. If there is to be support for research and for costumes to be displayed safely and convincingly, this kind of information about the work involved needs to be continually put out there.

I am planning a blog post for my home institution that will discuss the various difficulties in getting from one unmodified dress form torso to the finished presentation for an ensemble, a World War I uniform, that presented several challenges for us.  And after the process of reviewing the posts above, I wish I would have documented my own process more completely!

Left: modified commercial dress form with custom arms and fosshape legs Right: World War I uniform on finished mannequin Uniform from collection of the Texas Military Forces Museum, Camp Mabry

Left: modified commercial dress form with custom arms and fosshape foundation legs
Right: World War I uniform on finished mannequin, ready to be brought to the gallery space for the exhibition, The World at War, 1914-1918, Harry Ransom Center
Uniform from collection of the Texas Military Forces Museum, Camp Mabry

Blogging or participating in making videos for your home institution may seem like just another job to do–extra work in a day with little time. But such posts go beyond merely illustrating for the public some cool, behind-the-scenes thing.  While it is certainly that, it is also the evidence of hard work that doesn’t just “happen”.  It is work that requires resources and support for staff and continued learning, and its dissemination can gradually increase an awareness of what is necessary in our field to do the best job we can–for the public, donors, and even colleagues within our own institutions, who may have very little idea of what is involved.


Palmer, Alexandra (2008). Untouchable: Creating Desire and Knowledge in Museum Costume and Textile Exhibitions.  Fashion Theory, 12 (1): 31-64.

Taylor, Lou (2002).  The Study of Dress History. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.


CFP: ITAA 2014 Annual Conference Seminar Session – Sexualities in Fashion

Sexualities in Fashion: An Exploration of Industry, Design, Aesthetics, and Personal Style

November 13, 2014 

International Textile and Apparel Association

There has been much discussion lately relating to sexuality in the US news as many states have been challenging issues related to same-sex marriage. How has a growing acceptance of LGBQT lifestyles affected both personal stylings and the apparel industry? How is the apparel industry (design, merchandising, advertising, marketing, etc.) responding to these shifting sensibilities? We would like to explore these questions in a seminar format at the 2014 ITAA conference. We invite creative scholarship, research submissions, and research-in-progress in an interactive format. We hope to challenge scholars to articulate research findings in a creative medium.

Presentations may include (but are not limited to):

  • textile designs
  • video/media
  • apparel design
  • fiber arts
  • interactive presentations

We invite scholarship from all disciplines and research methodologies.

Deadline for submission: April 15, 2014

Please email submissions to Kelly Reddy-Best at

Full submission requirements and information available here.