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An Insight into Fashion Curation in Museums

The roles museums play in educating us and preserving our history is well known, that is indeed why many people go to museums. An integral part of visiting a museum involves experiencing the exhibits that have painstakingly been sought out, preserved and then presented by highly specialised and trained teams of experts. One particular area of exhibits that have only recently started gaining in popularity is that of fashion.

In this episode we discuss the art of fashion curation and give you a real insight into an area of museum curation which when done right can instantly and seamlessly transport your imagination to a different place and time as it involves an area of our lives that we are intimately familiar with… our clothes.

You can listen to the whole interview podcast over on our podcast page or by clicking here at Fashion Curation in Museums.

Muaz

On this week’s episode of Blazon, I’m talking to Julia Petrov, who is the Curator of Daily Life and Leisure at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton,  Canada. And as the Exhibit Reviews Editor for the Costume Society of America Journal. Julia is also the author of Fashion, History, Museums, inventing the display of dress, which explores the history of fashion displays highlighting the continuity of past and present curatorial practices.

Julia

My name is Julia Petrov. I am the curator of Daily Life and Leisure at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton,  Canada. And I’m sort of general social history curator, but I am responsible for a very large clothing and textile collection and as part of the Daily Life and Leisure collection, and I have previously worked with a number of other clothing and textile collections.

Julia Petrov - An Insight into Fashion Curation in Museums

And generally fashion in the museum is something I’ve been interested in for a really long time as part of my master’s research and my PhD research, which my book is based on. And yeah, I try and make time for that as much as I possibly can.

Muaz

Fashion curation. So what on a high level does that involve when it comes to museums?

Julia

Sure. Well, there’s, there’s different aspects of it, right? There’s the collecting aspect and then there’s putting it on display. And so collecting is something that museums have been for a long time, even before museums existed, as such many people hang on to clothing that is meaningful to them.

Wedding dresses are sort of classic example, but, but many people have precious items of clothing that belong to themselves or to people they love that they hold on to. And then eventually those reach public collections and they become part of history and they become part of history in a multitude of different ways.

So the earliest museum collections of, uh, fashion were collected really as examples of textiles. So if they had really beautiful lace or embroidery on them, they were collected for their aesthetic appeal. And really as examples that designers could then draw inspiration from. Um, but equally there is also examples of clothing worn by important people.

So one of the earliest elections in the United States was the first ladies fashion collections. So, uh, the wives and sometimes the daughters of the presidents of the United States, um, they’re kind of best gowns as it were, which had been preserved were then reunited in the Smithsonian Institution and were put on display.

And so this was both a kind of a history of the United States, as well as like history of fashion. So that kind of connection to particular people and a history through those particular people. And so the curation of fashion in the museum when it comes to exhibits, has to, uh, focus either on, on the look of a garment in terms of it being particularly old-fashioned perhaps, or something maybe unexpectedly contemporary, um, and equally on the wearer.

So who wore it, on what occasion and what can that tell us about the historical context of the time? And fashion curators today are professionals in fashion curation. So they have some knowledge and understanding of uh, the history of dress, um, the materiality and the construction of clothing itself. And so they’re, they’re well placed to make some of those decisions, whether it comes to collecting or whether that comes to exhibits.

Although in the past that wasn’t the case that wasn’t, uh, a profession that you could specialize in. Nowadays there’s lots of MA programs and PhD programs that you could go into to study this, but in the past, it was much more a kind of a personal interest that a curator might have, and then they might have professional academic experience in a related field.

So something like art history or social history, or, or maybe they were a maker themselves and were able to draw on that to inform their practice. But now it really is a professional field and there’s a growing number of us, which is pretty exciting. 

Muaz

Yeah, no for sure, because there are so many aspects of this, which are becoming a lot more visible to everyone. And I guess with like social media picking up on this and things like various aspects of television and it’s becoming a lot more to the forefront. And especially when you have a number of really large design houses who make a lot of noise when they are being presented in a particular museum as part of a show.

Julia

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. There’s I mean, the, the documentaries that you mentioned, the V&A had one not long ago, Amber Butchart has a dress story in it with her Stitch in Time program featured, um, museum work and museum collections as well. Yeah. As you say on, on Instagram, there’s, there’s a number of fashion curators that draw on museum collections and give behind the scenes looks at their objects as well as the process of putting on an exhibit. So definitely more visible. 

And then, yeah, the, um, the fashion houses like Chanel and Dior, which have their own archives and work with usually external curators, but not always external curators who tell the story of that design house.

And that has a great business implications for them because it establishes them as a heritage brand and something that has this cache of, of having been around for a really long time and having that history and resting on their look and their well-established taste, uh, which I think is, is really important for their brand story.

Muaz

So with regards to, so you mentioned that two different aspects of curation. One of the parts you mentioned was the actual display of the items. How does that process work when it comes to fashion? How do you determine that a certain collection is going to be presented? 

Julia

Oh gosh. There’s so many different reasons to put something on display. Many museums have permanent galleries, where they showcase their clothing and the problem with fashion at to some degree, I mean, it’s not really a problem as such, but it’s a characteristic of the material is that it can’t actually be on display for very long. They’re fragile materials, which respond quite badly to light, you handling, the dust. And so you have to switch things out. 

So basically you need a large collection in order to have choices from which to draw in order to switch out. And then in terms of an actual premise for, for a display, it could be anything. It could be something like an anniversary of something that they, whatever place the museum happens to be in the city or town, or even the museum itself might be celebrating an anniversary and Centennial, for example. And so you might want to drag out to the hundred year old clothes to show what life was like a hundred years ago. 

Or perhaps you received a really large landmark collection of something designer clothing, or the wardrobe of a particular person. And you want to showcase that as a, as a recent tact position. Likewise, there might be other topics that, that are of interest, um, either to the curator or to the public at large that might prompt this. And then comes the really practical, difficult work of determining how to exhibit it and whether the material is actually exhibitable. Um, because one of the problems is that we all wear clothing and it fits us, but it doesn’t necessarily fit the furniture that the museum has.

So mannequins, for example, are a perennial problem for museums because every item of clothing is going to be a different size. And so it’s actually not as easy as people think to do a fashion exhibition, because you have to have this army of mannequins, which often require plastic surgery as it were to change their dimensions and make them fit the garments that you want on display in a safe way and an attractive way. 

And then it’s also about making sure that the clothes fit appropriately in terms of all the, the undergarments and having the right silhouette. So if you’re putting something from the 1850s on, you don’t want that, that skirt that would have originally been supported by a large hoop skirt, a girdle in to hang and sag and be quite sad.

So you, you need some expertise in order to mount these shows properly. So when people think it’s, it’s sort of easy and maybe it’s a little bit like window dressing or dressing mannequins in a shop, but it isn’t the majority of the clothing that fashion curators deal with are old and they’re fragile. And they’re made out of very precious, delicate materials. And so you can’t wrestle the limbs of a very heavy fiberglass mannequin into these things very really easily. So it’s this delicate balance of the topic that you want to explore. As well as the limitations of the material itself. 

Muaz

So how does that lifecycle work? So from the point where you decide that you want to take this particular collection and put it on display, and once it’s gone on display prepared of display to once it comes back, I’m sure there are a lot of details here, but just at a high level, what is the thought process that takes you from a, so you mentioned that there might be a Centennial coming up or, uh, you’re collaborating with a particular design house. And then from there, what is the thought process that makes you pick a particular suite of garments and then take those and go the high-level steps that take you from there to display. And once it’s on display, is there a particular process of maintaining it on display and then moving it back off display?

Julia

Yeah, there absolutely is. And in an ideal situation and many museums don’t have this ideal situation, but in an ideal situation, you’re working with a whole team of people that have different specialists. So the curator may come up with those sort of intellectual content of the show. So the premise, the topic of the exhibit, let’s say it is Centennial in our dream exhibit.

So you say, okay, life a hundred years ago. And based on that knowledge, you would choose particular types of garments knowing that, you know, in 1921 particular things were fashionable. You know what collection has, you want a day wear, you want evening wear, you might want sportswear, where you might want some…

And then in an ideal situation, you go through with your conservators, preferably textile conservators, and really take a look at the condition of the garments that you want to put on display. Make sure that they are robust enough to be able to be put on to mannequins if they can’t be put onto mannequins, are there other safe means of displays?

So for example, laying them flat and yet making sure that it still looks good as opposed to somebody’s sort of discarded garment, or I find that they, they look quite a little bit like, um, the shed skin of a reptile when they’re on a surface, so you don’t want them to look creepy. Um, and then, um, beyond that, I, you, you make sure that they’re going to look good on a plinth.

So something that is eye-catching, something that draws the eye in maybe some detail that people who look closer will be rewarded and be able to see that. Um, you might work with a designer, a 3D exhibit designer who is able to support the show by using things like let’s say turntables or arrangements of plinths that allow people to see a garment from as many angles as you possibly can.

Isn’t necessarily possible to do it 360, but you don’t want to have just one angle because that’s not what clothes are. They’re three-dimensional. So you want to make sure that there’s that kind of visual access. Maybe you use mirrors for example. And then when you, as a team have that shortlist and you’ve written in your labels, which in an ideal world, draw your attention to things that aren’t obvious. My personal bugbear in any museum is when you look at the label and, I’m going to use a painting example. It’s a landscape painting. And then you look at the label and it says, this is a landscape painting. And you’re like, thanks. I couldn’t have seen that myself. And so, yeah, that’s the little black dress. Oh, really? So, so something that gives you something more, some more information in the label.

And then, um, and then it goes on display. Uh, you want to make sure that the display is safe for the garments. So generally these things tend to be behind glass. So is to protect from touch and from dust as much as possible. Sometimes you don’t want that. Sometimes you want it to be out on a plinth, but you don’t want people to be able to reach out and touch it, but still have barriers. 

So there’s all sorts of kind of extremely practical considerations that go into determining what goes on display and how, and then when it is on display, generally the museum technicians or the conservators monitor for light levels, they monitor for dust. So on days when the museum is closed for hours, times when the museum was closed, Um, there’s all sorts of behind the scenes maintenance that goes on. Um, I mean even, and then, because the conservators have a formula for how long things can be on display. So usually it’s a kind of a maximum length of time at a particular light level before fading starts to take place.

So you want to make sure that the garments that are very delicate and very susceptible to that will be taken off before that. So if you want your show to continue, you might switch things out, for example, or you have a set end time for that show and, you know, while the show is on, then you start working on the next show. It’s, uh, it’s a cycle. It just keeps going. 

Muaz

Oh perfect. Wow, that is quite involved. There are, it does look like you would need quite a few people with different areas of expertise to maintain a smooth running of such an operation. 

Julia

Yeah. Having said that, lots of museums are smaller. And so they might just have the one curator. They might have some volunteers to help out physically speaking, it’s it’s difficult. So you definitely need help for dressing mannequins, et cetera. The very largest museums, places like The Met, they have specialist dressers. So it’s not the curator. Who’s who’s dressing these mannequins or the conservator.

There are people who specialize in specifically mounting garments, which is kind of amazing. So, but smaller museums obviously don’t don’t necessarily have that access. And so they’re going to try and do some of these same things with a much smaller team of people. 

Muaz

Overtime, so over the last few years, have you seen the role of fashion in a museum change in any way, or has it been pretty, I don’t want to say static, but so like the role played as part of its role of being in a museum. If that, if that makes sense. 

Julia

Yeah. Yeah. No, absolutely. So a lot more of this is in my book, but generally speaking, the, the early displays, the fashion in museums, weren’t about fashion as such. So they were about the history of dress, they were about the history of costume and the wording suggests an underlying attitude, which was that the clothing wasn’t seen as kind of vital or relevant anymore. It was seen as very much a relic of the past and something that could perhaps inform contemporary practice, but maybe as a kind of moral of how far we’ve come and what not to do again, you know?

Um, so for example, looking back at the age of the crinoline and in a way of like, Oh, weren’t they so silly to dress like this? Right. So very much kind of us versus them attitude. And more recently with the rise of fashion curation. So explicitly using the word fashion. I think that the attitude is more about that a respect and perhaps a reverence for the fashion system, which is one that, that is an economy, it relies on change. Yes. 

But, but also on taking inspiration from the past and making it relevant to the present. So I would say that fashion exhibitions today, and I’m speaking very, very broadly. Of course, there are a huge number of exceptions to this, but, um, broadly speaking, I would say that the genre of fashion exhibitions are really, are trying to appeal to people today to show things that are of interest to museum goers.

And they could be of interest because of something that is current events, or it could be inspiring them to make sort of purchases that are relevant to the show. And so, um, this is where we do get into the genre of brand fashion houses. Again, Dior, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, for example, um, Mark Jacobs, you know, all those living brands that draw on their archive. You also draw customers, right? This is, this is part of the economic fashion. 

Museums have to play a kind of, um, they have to play it safe a little bit because museums technically are in the public trust. Uh, they often, it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to see, to be seen as preferring one brand over another. For example, to make those value judgments, to say, this is the best thing to buy. That kind of thing isn’t appropriate. So, but they’re definitely still part of the cycle because they rely on donations. They rely on the income of people coming through the door. So you still have to appeal essentially to the purchasing public.

And so they also, if they’re doing anything with a contemporary, large brand have to play along, they have to in a way, not be too critical. I’m not saying that they necessarily are tools of propaganda for these brand houses. Cause I don’t think they are, but they definitely are not going to go as far as to critique these houses in a way that makes them look bad.

So, so it’s a delicate balance for sure. But I would say that yes, the role of dress museums has changed and definitely fashion is used to make the museum look more modern or contemporary, more kind of up with the, with the times and what’s happening today. And Marie Riegels Melchior out of Denmark has written quite a lot about this. Um, she has some interesting work about how the museum positions itself through fashion as being a really fashionable place to be. 

Muaz

Right. I guess to a certain extent, it works both ways. If you think about, if you have a brand that is considered aspirational to a certain sample of a population, and if that brand is considered aspirational and if a museum has a display of that brand… It kind of makes the association the other way as well, where it highlights that this museum is also associated with this aspirational brand. 

Julia

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, because people, you know, people in museums are not unaware of the fact that people outside museums do tend to view museums as dusty places for old irrelevant relics. So fashion is used among other things, but fashion is used very knowingly to kind of show the general public that, hey, no, we’re not. We’re we’re we, we can be relevant. We can be kind of interesting in the things that you’re interested in, right? Like this is another place among all the other places that you turn to for a leisure time that isn’t just about hitting you over the head with facts, but it also can be enjoyable.

Muaz

Because it’s almost, I guess, from a personal point of view, if you look at, so if you have a museum and it’s been showing Victorian dresses for the last, you know, however many decades, and at some point you’d need a reason for people to start coming back. Right. And it’s part of that. And I think as part of that, you would have a brand, if you could tap into a brand’s persona and the people who aspire to wear whatever that brand makes and tap into that crowd and bring them in. Because I think what a lot of people also don’t realize that part of the shopping experience might not involve buying… 

Julia

Yeah. It is a kind of a window shopping and it is about sort of wetting the desire for whatever small piece of that brand you can afford. And certainly there’s also a whole range of gift shop tie-ins in these collaborations as well. But the, the thing is that when you’re doing something like that, you want to present the public with something they can’t see otherwise. Right. You want to have some exclusive content. So what is the difference between going into the, I dunno, Chanel store versus seeing it in a museum, right.

There has to be some content that isn’t available that way. Right? You have to have some kind of access that you wouldn’t otherwise have. And that’s really the trick of curating something that does bring the museum up to date on that does bring in a different public, but it has that content that isn’t otherwise available.

Muaz

Right. Absolutely. Because I guess they’d be walking around Bond Street otherwise, or, you know, um. 

Julia

Which I mean, to be fair, not everybody has access to walking around Bond Street. Not everybody is able to do that. And sometimes if you’re in a, in a smaller place than a more kind of, I don’t want it to sound pejorative, but in a more provincial area. Maybe that is good enough, but, but generally speaking, it isn’t, especially in this age of social media and websites and all this exclusive content that many brands produce, you know, if you’re a subscriber to one of those things, you’ve, you’ve seen that. And is it really that different to see one of these outfits, behind glass than it is on your screen on an Instagram feed? So you do want something more, you want something more exclusive for sure. And sometimes that involves getting access to understanding how these things are made. Right? So there might be an AV component of interviewing the artisans for example, sometimes it’s about that historical component of like, look, this is made in the same way in the same workshops as it has been since, you know, 19, whatever. So, yeah, you want to give people something that they can’t have otherwise. And that’s the trick of the museum.

Muaz

Plus I guess, as you mentioned, if you have something in your display, you have the option of almost like highlighting the finer points that the actual brand might not be able to do outside of a collaboration like this where, I mean, they might, but being able to actually bring the customer further in almost into a different form of theater where they could bring in, in the craftsmanship, uh, highlight the different techniques used as part of the manufacture off a particular garment, which using the channels that they regularly have access to the brand might not be able to paint that kind of picture. But when they bring in a museum or the kind of teams that you talked about that adds a dimension that a brand might not ordinarily be able to access. 

Julia

Yeah. It’s I think the word that you used, the theater is a really apt one. It’s about creating these immersive spaces. So a store fundamentally exists to sell the merchandise so you can stage it, but you still have to prioritize the actual merchandise.

So you’re not necessarily going to have the space for displaying how something is constructed or videos of the artisans, or lots of historical examples of those sorts of the precedents for that particular garment. Right? So in this way, the exhibit can be kind of immersive experience that really takes the brand from A to Z.

All the different components all together under one roof. And I would normally say, well, the difference is that you can’t try it on, but many of these things, as they said, they are actually going to be available in the gift shop. So, um, so you can try it on upon exiting the show itself. 

Muaz

Perfect. That was really interesting and really insightful. So a lot of this information, I’m sure a lot of people who listen to our podcast and who are interested in fashion in general have probably thought about, but have not really considered as much.

How can our listeners find you online? 

Julia

My book is available, open access through Bloomsbury. So, uh, Fashion History, Museums, and it’s available through Bloomsbury collections and you can read it online and I also have an Academia page. So if you really want to read more of what I write, it’s all there. I am the exhibit reviews editor for the Costume Society of America’s Journal. So, if any of your listeners happen to see a good museum exhibit that they want to make sure other people know about, get in touch with me that way, and I’d be happy to work with you to develop a review.

  • Fashion, History, Museums – Inventing the Display of Dress: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/fashion-history-museums-9781350229662/

You can listen to the whole interview podcast over on our podcast page or by clicking here at Fashion Curation in Museums.

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