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.
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?