Valerie Steele: Fashion’s First Scholar
With a collection of more than 20 exhibitions under her belt since 1997, Dr. Valerie Steele’s work as an author, fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology has been paramount in creating a well documented history of fashion that not only educates, but illustrates, how relatable the subject is. With titles like “The Corset: Fashioning the Body,” “Gothic: Dark Glamour,” and “A Queer History of Fashion” to name just a few, the fashionista who holds the industries first PhD sheds light on the industries rich communal, yet often personal, cultural significance. Whether its delving into gothic style, fashion’s fetishes or Italian and Parisian artistry, her encyclopedic knowledge of fashion gives it a face, a sense of being and a pleasant familiarity ultimately earning her the right to be called one of fashions most influential people.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 13th issue of ODDA Magazine.
Tell us a little bit about how you got your start in fashion.
Right. I was in the first term at graduate school at Yale where I went to study modern European Cultural and Intellectual History and we had a class where we had to talk about two scholarly articles from a journal that we had read. I don’t even remember which ones I read, but my classmate Judy talked about two that she’d read from a feminist magazine and they were debating the meaning of the Victorian corset. One article said it was oppressive to women, the other said it was liberating. And it was just like a light bulb went on and I suddenly realized, ‘fashion’s a part of culture. I can write about fashion history.’ And so, that’s what I did from then on. All of my classes, my dissertation, it was really not a field then. There was very little in the way of scholarship then on fashion. So, it was very exciting.
Valerie Steele Director of the Museum at FIT on Fashion & Art from Parrish Art Museum on Vimeo.
In association with the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, you’ve curated more than 20 exhibitions: “The Corset: Fashioning the Body,” “Gothic: Dark Glamour,” and “A Queer History of Fashion” to name just a few. Since being appointed director, what has been your objective? What are your goals with the program?
Basically I want to make the museum into a real ‘think tank’ for fashion studies to try and help build a really great team of curators, conservators, educators and exhibition designers so we can educate and inspire diverse audiences through creating innovative exhibitions, publications, public programs and websites. So through a variety of different media, we want to get out the message that fashion is interesting and important.
What’s a typical day like for a director of a fashion museum? What are your sources of inspiration? What’s your favourite part about it?
Well, I suppose my favourite part about it is putting together exhibitions. So, if I am lucky, I will spend a certain part of the day working on organizing an exhibition. Like right now, I’m working on an exhibition I’ll do next year called ‘Think Pink,’ which is a history about the colour pink, that is sort of a controversial colour in fashion history. At the moment I’m writing the book for that and I also have tons of pictures on the wall of dresses and objects that I want to include in the exhibition. That’s part of the day. Obviously, other pats of the day include things like raising money because you have to do that to put on exhibitions. And then I will be working with other curators on their exhibitions trying to figure out the timing for which exhibition goes when, what they need to remember to put into their exhibition, raising money for their shows. You’re working with a whole team so I wouldn’t just be in my own office, but running around to go to different departments to work on projects. For example, ‘the education department is working on a symposium. Then we just suddenly got a great person who wrote in and has a new book asking if we can fit that into our lecture schedule. Things like that.’
As the founding editor of “Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture,” the journals first editorial described its work “as the cultural construction of the embodied identity.” Please explain.
Sure. The idea was that fashion is not just high fashion, expensive designer clothes. Fashion is really anything you do to transform your appearance. So hair, tattoo’s, piercing’s, blue jeans, all of that that people do to put together a look, that’s all a part of fashion. It’s not just women’s clothes; it’s men’s clothes. So we’d be looking at articles on all of those subjects.
To date, what have been some of your most exciting projects or collaborations?
Well, the exhibitions are super exciting. For example, I loved doing the exhibition with Daphne Guinness, which was my idea. I convinced her to do it and then she just whole-heartedly came into it. We spent a year looking through her closets and choosing clothes trying to come up with a really exciting exhibition design. So, we ended up doing this kind of …its called ‘Pepper’s Ghost.’ It’s not a real hologram because we didn’t point actual lasers at Daphne, but we had the cameras going from different angles so that we had a three-dimensional moving image of her wearing Alexander McQueen and putting on her jewellery that was kind of hanging in the air above the exhibition. So that was fun. Last year, I also collaborated with the Museum of Fashion of the City of Paris. They had a show over there that was super cool about a fashion icon from the late 19th, early 20th century, the Countess Greffulhe. So, I went and worked with their director, Olivier Saillard, and I kind of cherry picked the best thing that he had in his show in Paris and presented them in sort of a different context at the Museum at FIT. That was very exciting. And of course, another collaboration which is sort of crucial to everything is an elite membership group called the ‘Couture Council’ that I am part of. We raise money, up to one million dollars a year, through memberships and a big awards luncheon. So that’s something that has been very gratifying and exciting as well.
Rate these five pieces of your work in order from most favourite to least favourite.
– “Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power”
– “Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now”
– “Gothic: Dark Glamour”
– “The Corset: A Cultural History”
– “Japan Fashion Now”
Well, I think the corset one is the most important one. That’s the one that really got me into working in fashion. Off and on, I spent 20 years working on that book. So that’s super important. ‘Fetish’ is probably my most popular book. It’s been translated into the most languages. It broke a lot of boundaries in doing that. I adored working on ‘Gothic.’ The book and the exhibition was one of the most exciting, the later was one of the first where we did an immersive mise-en-scène that included scenes about vampires, ruined castles, laboratories, Goth clubs and all of that. So that was thrilling. ‘Japan Fashion Now’ was also super thrilling because I adore Japan. It’s one of my favourite countries. We set up the show to look like a kind of ‘Blade Runner’ vision of the Tokyo of the future. It has some really great and brilliant fashion in it. ‘Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now,’ that’s a favourite of mine. I wrote it originally for a French publisher and then Yale University Press picked it up. It happened at just the same time that I was hired to work at the museum. So I transformed it into my first exhibition at FIT. That was sort of a straight chronological exhibition that is kind of boring. I am more interested in thematic exhibitions.
Having been instrumental in creating the modern field of fashion studies, most of your publications and exhibitions focus on the history of fashion through the lens of womenswear. Is there a particular reasoning for this? Is there a reason you haven’t focused on menswear? Do you feel men’s fashion has been largely overlooked in terms of historical reference?
Right. OK. I have focused more on women’s fashion although I think ‘A Queer History of Fashion’ included a lot of menswear. On a whole, there’s been less work done in general in museums on men’s fashion. My colleague Patricia Mears on the other hand has focused quite a bit on menswear, especially in shows like ‘ID Style’ and when she did her show about 1930s fashion. It was really 50 men and 50 women. I’m including some menswear in ‘Pink,’ but it’s true that the majority of it is womenswear. I think that I wish I had put more menswear into ‘Gothic’ because there is a lot of gothic menswear. I had some, but I think I could have gotten a lot more. So, it’s tricky. One of my colleagues is going to be doing an all menswear show in a couple of years and I do think it’s actually a really exciting area in fashion. We did a denim show once. That was heavily a menswear show. It kind of depends on what the theme is.
So do you think there is a particular reason as to why menswear, as far curating and exhibitions like you were saying before, hasn’t really been a focus for the industry
Well the one really great menswear show that has occurred recently was ‘Raining Men’ at the LA County Museum of Art. They spent a lot of years and a lot of money collecting a great collection of historic menswear. That, I think, is one problem for most curator’s including me because usually exciting menswear tends to be from the 18th century, a long time ago or really current things. Now we can get lots of current menswear you know by Gucci, by Thom Brown, lots of great stuff. But, we only have a small amount of 18th century menswear. From the late 19th to the early 20th century, menswear seems to be pretty uniform. You know, most of it is black, dark blue or grey and tends to be a suit. It’s not as visually exciting as womenswear. That wasn’t true in historical terms, though. I mean, if I had a collection that went back and showed you what Henry VIII was wearing, he wore amazing clothes; but I don’t have that.
What are your favourite social causes?
I give money to the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, and to Amnesty International. Those are two of my biggest ones along with various kinds of animal organizations in Indonesia and a charity for big cats, tigers and lions.
If you could give our readers three words to live by, what would they be?
WORK. LOVE. NOW. ‘Work’ and ‘love’ I think are the two most important things in your life. And ‘now’ is a reminder to sort of live in the present. You can’t always be living in the past or the future because everything zips past so quickly. Seize the moment.
What are you currently working on and what can we expect to see from you in the future?
I am currently working on the big exhibition and book about the colour pink, ‘Think Pink.’ And I just had a new book come out. It’s a completely revised and expanded version of a previous book of mine, ‘Paris Fashion: A Cultural History.’ That has led me to planning another exhibition in 2019 on ‘Paris: The Capitol of Fashion.’
One last thing I’d like to add is that one of the really nice things about fashion is that everyone feels him or herself capable of understanding and appreciating it. So it’s really exciting working on fashion. I can pretty much talk with everybody about the topic because everybody is interested one way or the other and has options on it.
As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has
developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of
businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab
A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his
clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and
cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand
strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient
of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom,
Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards
competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful,
quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design
advice to his peers.
As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom, Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful, quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design advice to his peers.
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