LINKAGE: Black Fashion Museum

Not too long ago to an artist friend of mine, I was wishing out loud that there were more exhibitions exploring the fashion histories of non-white and non-upper class American women. Recent exhibits like “Night and Day” and  “Fashion and Politics” (both at the Museum at FIT); “American Woman, Fashioning a National Identity” (Costume Institute); and “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection” (Brooklyn Museum) are wonderful but they emphasize, if not exclusively focus on, white women of privilege. Non-white fashion exhibitions (like many cultural exhibitions) often explore the histories of style and dress of Asian or African women outside of the U.S. – leaving any mildly inquisitive viewer to wonder if Asian American and African American women have all but been wiped out from the national archival imaginary?

That’s why I’m so happy to discover the Black Fashion Museum Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Robin Givhan has a lovely review of the exhibit that’s well worth reading in full but I want to highlight an important point Givhan makes about the significance of these collections.

So much of the African American experience is stashed in basements and attics. That hidden history is in danger of being washed away by the enormity of another Katrina or even a trifling family rift. Ever since 2005, when Lonnie Bunch III was appointed director of the Smithsonian’s soon-to-be-constructed 19th museum, he has been scouring the crawl spaces of this country for the garments, the tools, the furnishings that will make the past real.

The day Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, she had been sewing this dress.

Created in 1958, this debutante gown was just one of more than 2,000 one-of-a-kind wedding and coming-out dresses created by pioneering African American designer Ann Lowe in the 1950s and 60s.

Museums and other archival institutions typically display the extraordinary rather than the ordinary, the First Lady’s inauguration ball gown rather than her J.Crew shorts. But because of the implausible convergence of racial, gender, sexual, class, and language barriers that confront non-White and working women, their lives and their accomplishments were not deemed extraordinary in their time. The material evidence of these lives not considered important enough to save or to study. Museums and other archival institutions that privilege white middle and upper class women’s experiences collude in the ongoing marginalization and erasure of the material cultural histories of minoritized American women.

Fortunately, exhibits and collections like the Black Fashion Museum, as well as blogs like Fashion for Writers, b. vikki vintage, and The Renegade Bean are doing some of this work, demonstrating the extraordinary in the ordinary. To cite Mimi in her post on the politics of race and vintage in an outfit post by Meggy of Fashion for Writers: “To me, it feels like Meggy renders visible the historical absence of Asians and Asian Americans in American popular culture as fashionable bodies –and through fashion as contemporaneous bodies– and also corrects this absence in creating another archive through which we might imagine otherwise.” (See also this post on Renegade Bean.)

Now that the Library of Congress has seen fit to archive the digital ephemera of tweets, why not archive the sartorial ephemera (the material, visual, and textual fashions) strewn throughout the crawl spaces, basements, and attics of non-white and working families?

A curated collection of non-White and working American women’s fashions across key periods in American history. . . how great would that be?




6 responses to “LINKAGE: Black Fashion Museum

  1. I completely agree that what is lacking in the recent explosion of fashion exhibitions has been non-White, non-privileged garments. One of the realities is that these garments in large part have simply not survived. And if they have, as Inez Brooks-Meyers of the Oakland Museum of California just mentioned in the symposium at the MET today, non-white, non-privileged communities have not always understood museum dynamics and the process of donations (or the fact that maybe a museum would even want such garments). As an employee of the Smithsonian Institution, I have participated in the Save Our African-American Treasures program, which aims to bring an Antiques Roadshow (minus the price appraisal) type of event to cities with historically strong African-American populations. A group of experts including curators and conservators look at objects that the community brings, helping to flesh out and identify more fully the object (quilts, Pullman Porter hats, dolls, photographs), as well as teach the community how better to store their treasures so they will last longer. A goal on the side is to hopefully bring to the attention of the NMAAHC possible future acquisitions.

    • The Save Our African-American Treasures program sounds absolutely amazing – especially without the heritage capitalism dimension! Are these events videotaped and accessible to the public?

      It’s true that museum spaces have long been the province of white elites and so minoritized people don’t always feel they are represented or belong in these spaces. Thinking about the racial and class dynamics of museums and other high culture institutions, I’m always reminded of John Berger’s essay “Ways of Seeing” in which he writes: “The majority take it as axiomatic that the museums are full of holy relics which refer to a mystery which excludes them: the mystery of unaccountable wealth. Or, to put this another way, they believe that original masterpieces belong to the preserve (both materially and spiritually) of the rich.”

      Programs like the one you’re describing are so important for expanding the cultural memory of the nation to include the lives and experiences of non-white and working people! Would you send us more info about this (by email)?

  2. Jo Paoletti

    The situation is even worse for those who are studying everyday, working class, men’s or children’s clothing. The combined race-class-gender bias in our field focuses far too much attention on elite fashion and design as art. I am not arguing for less white, upper-class women’s fashion in our work, but for more room, more support and more attention to the rest of humanity.

  3. Pingback: More Native Appropriations, Heritage Capitalism, and Fashion on Antiques Roadshow « threadbared

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