I was a grad student in Textile and Costume History at University of Wisconsin-Madison during the 2003-04 school year. During that year, I volunteered at the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection (HLATC in the hizzouse!) and interned at the Costume & Textiles Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society. A lot of what I did was cataloguing artifacts--which can be pretty time-consuming. At HLATC, I researched a folk costume donation and learned about the differences in Serbian dress. To digress, folk costume is hella interesting and it influences "fashion" in so many ways (e.g. the "peasant" look that bubbles up every few years.) The handwork--if it's, you know, done by hand--is swoon-worthy. The shapes or silhouettes are pretty simple--but the construction or embellishment--pin-tucks! quilting! mirrorwork! mad pleats! smocking!!--will leave you verklempt.
So, yes, I am a textile nerd. One day in the Historical Society's collection, the curator and I were nerding out over this dress that I would estimate was made during the years 1912-1917. The dresses from that era are crazy; they're just so elaborately constructed. We were poring over this dress like, Well, it looks like she got the seams wrong here and decided to start over. Oh, my goodness. Do you think this was from a pattern? A year later, I had a dream about this dress.
In the Historical Society, I got to see and handle the most beautiful, amazing things. To think: people lived in and wore these stunning objects. In the most recent issue of W--the one with the Madonna and horse fashion story--Madonna is wearing this very cool-looking beaded black vest-y thing. I recognized it right away. The Historical Society collection has dozens of them. They reminded me of something Tom Ford would have dreamt up during his Gucci years--all black, elaborately beaded, sometimes with net work, very black widow-y Goth. They're dated from the 1870s-1880s.
The 1920s is an era much beloved by clothing nerds/fans. The fabrics and colors were gorgeous. And the embellishment was unbelievable. I would go peep at the dresses in the 1920s area when I got bored; it was truly mind-blowing. Designers and dress-makers were just getting inspired by a wide variety of things: King Tut's tomb, Ballets Russes, various African cultures, "Orientalism," surrealism, Modernism, the Russian Revolution, etc. And just kind of going crazy. And people wore it. When I lived in Madison, there was a store there called Florilegium, which has since--oh, the bitterness, the cruelty of it!!!--to the metro Kansas City area. I walked in there and looked at the dresses. They had other things, too--like lamps with beaded shades and little metal and tapestry handbags. You look at this stuff and go, This stuff comes from a very different mindset. This comes from the mindset of people living with beauty, with having the time to create beauty. For me, it was humbling, almost.
During my semester as an intern at the Historical Society I got to see the stuff I was learning about in my Fashion History class up close--for real. One week we were talking about Poiret in class, and I came across the one in the collection. Another week in class, it was Lanvin--and, what do you know--I found a pink silk satin with brown (?) handwork suit whose existence had been forgotten. I ran over the the curator and the volunteer like, "Omigosh, we have a Lanvin!!!!" We all went over to gawk at it.
During my internship, I came to the conclusion that everyone who thinks they care about "fashion" should volunteer in or donate to some historical society's costume and textile collection (and it doesn't have to be the Museum at FIT or the Costume Institute either!!); these collections do such important work and protect and keep the wonder.