Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Museum at F.I.T.: A Personal Odyssey

Founded in 1967 as a support for the educational programs of the Fashion Institute of Technology, this museum is one of only a few in the world devoted exclusively to the fashion arts. With 50,000 garments, 15,000 accessories and 30,000 textiles dating from the 5th century to the 21st century, it's holdings put it on par with many of the larger museum collections in the world. By anyone's standards, this is one impressive permanent collection.  Composed of two main galleries, with an exhibition schedule that rotates every six months, the museum can always be accessed at any time of the year.  Their shows are innovative, informative and best of all, intimate.  If you are really lucky, you may find yourself alone in the gallery, and in the presence of greatness.  

My experience and memories of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, are relatively new.  It wasn't until 2006 that I discovered its existence! It was October of that year that I found myself with some free time after taking my design students to Manhattan for their term break.  I had already done my duty with walking tours focusing on the architecture of the 20th century and a day long stint at the Metropolitan Museum discussing the evolution of furniture styles and so I treated myself to a day off and spent it shopping for textiles in the garment district.  Turning the corner at 7th Avenue and 27 Street, to my surprise, I saw the museum signage.  It has been on my personal itinerary ever since then.
c. 1750 French Stay/stomacher
While the collection has its share of 18th through 20th century artifacts, it is how the collection is used that makes for such a fulfilling visit.  While on my last costume tour to the U.K., I was struck by how collections such as the one at Platt Hall still relied on the old exhibition format of evolution in a chronological context and how uninteresting that approach was.  This has never been my personal experience with the exhibits at F.I.T.  Through juxtapositions, director and chief curator Dr. Valerie Steele, has been able to demonstrate the many aspects of fashion and its relevance to todays patrons and designers alike.  She is able to contextualize apparently desperate items in a way that makes you think beyond the obvious.

"By exploring fashion's past, we can better understand its present and future."
Dr. Valerie Steele

c. 1830 dress

What I also like about the exhibitions at this museum is the amount of attention paid to the collecting and displaying of work by contemporary designers.  This seems to be a major mandate and from my point of view, it helps to have an interpreter and guide through the often confusing amount of material available. Once again the curatorial staff at F.I.T. are able to clearly and concisely leave me with a greater awareness of the design influences around me.

Alexander McQueen

Themes which I have personally explored with their aid have ranged from a look at "Colors in Fashion" through the recent exhibition, "Fashion, A-Z"

As you can imagine, the garments displayed were chosen for their predominant colour palette.  Colour was explored through its historical and symbolic meaning, both in a western and non western perspective.  Do you have a favorite colour?  You probably do.  What does it say about you?

Roberto Cavalli, 2003

Blue:  In antiquity it was considered a second rate colour.  Not as difficult to acquire as red or black and often associated with the Celts and Germans.  Two groups considered barbarian by the Romans.  The Christians associated it with virginity and purity.  Take a look at the original, "Madonna".  Not the rock star.  Today, blue is one of the most fashionable colours to consumers.  What does "true blue" mean to you?

James Galanos, 1955-6
Red:  The "Scarlett" woman.  Danger and warning as seen in nature and street signs.  During the French revolution, women wore red ribbons around their neck, "a la guillotine" It can symbolize both life and death and so has a duality not seen in other colours.  Asian brides prefer it, for its connotations to life's blood and fertility.  A royal colour, we see it in the uniforms of the British monarchy.  It was once one of the most expensive colours to create.

Norman Norell, c. 1962
Yellow:  It takes a bad rap.  Treason and cowardice.  Used to label the disenfranchised. In 18th century Europe it became fashionable along with all things Chinese.  Not always in fashion, but, like orange, embraced when it is.

My favorite exhibit was in the spring of 2007.  "Ralph Rucci:  The Art of Weightlessness".  It celebrated the career of alumnus, Ralph Rucci.  I have to admit that I had never heard of this designer  before, but I was at once captivated by the exhibition and became a devotee of this mans talent. (See my earlier posting on Chado: Ralph Rucci)

Ralph Rucci

The exhibition included numerous garments from the two previous decades of his work and was a celebration of his 25 years as a couturier.  The first American designer since Mainbocher to be invited to show his own haute couture collection in Paris.  In 2006, he received the first award for Artistry of Fashion, presented by the Couture Council of The Museum of FIT.

Installation at the museum

Detail of leather sequin  blouse

Four Seasons collection

An incredible gown, beaded and sequined by the firm Lesage, captured in fabric the spirit of liquified malachite.  

The Museum at F.I.T. has also partnered with other institutions.  "Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures from the Chicago History Museum" treated me to a collection that, once again, I was not aware of.  The show was as much a celebration of couture as it was of the city and women of Chicago.  Here, the emphasis on provenance, so often lacking in costume collections, provided the viewer with a greater understanding of the wealth and society of this mid-western city.  (It has made me acutely aware to keep complete notations on the garments in my own collection)  Not only did the exhibit reveal the tastes and aspirations of the women who purchased these examples, but also the native sons who put American fashion on the map.  Main Rousseau Bocher, Mainbocher, born in Chicago in 1891 and Charles James whose maternal family came from Chicago and where he began his career as a milliner.

Mainbocher, c. 1938

Charles James, c. 1954

Balenciaga, c. 1955

Worth,  teagown, c. 1900

My latest visit to Manhattan and The Museum at F.I.T. did not disappoint.  "Fashion, A-Z"  Part Two, is currently on until November 10, 2012.  My only regret is that I did not see part one.  Divided into two parts, the show features roughly 60 design examples, arranged, you guessed it, alphabetically by designer/house.  This show is a tour de force of the museums holdings and does not pretend to be anything more than a celebration of years of collecting.  The experience is like being invited into a fashionistas closet.  Sometimes, particularly on a hot day, that is good enough.

B is for Balmain, 2002

C is for Comme des Garcons, 2002

J is for Charles James, 1955

K is for Rei Kawakubo, 2005

M is for Margiela, 1997

I can't express enough how enriching my experiences at the Museum at F.I.T. have been.  If you have never been to this museum before, you must put it on your bucket list.  Visit their web site, www.fitnyc.edu/museum for more details and images from their collection.  The event calendar lists upcoming symposia and exhibitions.  The best news of all, a companion book, to be published this fall by TASCHEN, will feature more than 500 photographs from the museum's collection.  Be sure to put it on your gift list.


  1. Well, the link to you blog post has been passed around the museum and we have all enjoyed reading a piece written by someone who loves what we do as much as we do!!!
    Thank you for your thoughtful (and historical) account of The Museum at FIT.

    Museum Media Manager, MFIT

  2. Wonderful colors and organic natural forms. Reminds me of a painting like Rainy landscape, by Russian painter Kandinsky, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8EWL66, that I saw at wahooart.com, from where one can order a canvas print of it. Really good place to browse the painter’s work and other work similar to your style of painting.