HAPPY ANNIVERSARY: For many, reading about museum exhibitions is inevitably easier than actually trekking out to see them. Next month the Museum at FIT will unveil what amounts to a recap of some of its shows from the past half-century.
In honor of the museum’s silver anniversary, “Exhibitionism: 50 Years of The Museum at FIT” will spotlight 33 of its greatest hits, so to speak, drawing from its permanent collection. While FIT’s Couture Council may be well-versed about “Shoe Obsession,” “Daphne Guinness,” “A Queer History of Fashion,” “Fairy Tale Fashion,” “Black Fashion Designers,” “American Beauty,” and some of the other shows that are represented in the retrospective, less-informed museum goers can get a crash course of sorts. The museum’s director and chief curator Valerie Steele and curator of costume and accessories Colleen Hill had a lot of pieces to cull through from more than 200 shows.
Originally known as the Design Laboratory and Galleries at FIT, the Museum at FIT was named in 1994 and is located at Seventh Avenue and 27th Street was renamed The Museum at FIT in 1994. The American Alliance of Museums accredited it in 2012. In 1971, after MGM executives heard that the museum’s first director Robert Riley pulled together a runway show that featured models wearing designs by Gilbert Adrian, they offered some of the costumes Adrian had made for Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Five years later, when the museum staged “Paul Poiret, King of Fashion,” Riley enhanced its permanent collection with such pieces as a “Persian” ensemble from a 1919 formal ball. By Steele’s recollection, Riley’s 1976 Poiret show was the first exhibition in the world. “He had died in poverty in the Thirties and everyone had forgotten how influential Poiret was. He had women wearing bras instead of corsets in the Teens before Chanel even opened her business. He had women wearing Turkish trousers in brilliant colors.” she said.
Also influential was the 1987 “Fashion and Surrealism” exhibition that was organized by Richard Martin, Harold Koda — who later worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute — and Laura Sinderbrand. For Martin, “it really was a crusade to have fashion be accepted as art, or as he said, ‘at least as visual culture.’” Steele said. “When he talked about how the place for surrealism in the modern world was in fashion more than in painting because it was all about the body, transformation, sexuality and the unconscious, it was really transformative from the way that everybody looked at fashion.”
As for the current team, sexuality, gender and identity are subjects that Steele has explored through such museum exhibitions as “The Corset: Fashioning the Body” and “Gothic: Dark Glamour.” MFIT deputy director Patricia Mears leans more toward connoisseurship as evidenced by “Madame Grès, Sphinx of Fashion” in 2008.