I’ve been thinking a lot about Thread for Thought‘s latest post on the difficulty of defining “American fashion”. Of course, the ways in which the normative relations between fashion, beauty, and nationalism are articulated through racial, gender, and class terms are frequent topics on Threadbared. But what especially struck me about Thread for Thought’s post was that it calls attention to the very problem that sparked the initial idea for Of Another Fashion.
Last June, I wrote a post introducing the idea for a different kind of fashion exhibition, one that explores not only the fashion histories of women of color but also the curatorial and critical neglect of these histories. The response to this exhibition has been overwhelming and gratifying. Moreover, what I’ve learned in the last six months about what it takes to curate even a modest-sized exhibition is mind-blowing.
Set aside for a minute the amount of funding and organization such an exhibition demands (this, I expected, thanks to Sarah Scaturro‘s patient counsel). More challenging and, well, eye-opening is the unintended consequences of the neglect of minoritized fashion histories. I’ve received so many emails from people telling me about objects that would have been perfect for the exhibition but they no longer know where these items are. Many family photographs are torn, bent, or sun- or water-damaged. I’ve been able to digitally correct a few but many are too compromised to fix. In an attempt to provide a glimpse of the fashionable worlds of women of color historically, I’ve also collected various kinds of media images in local magazines and newspapers. Again, because many of these publications do not have the bold faced names of Vogue or the New York Times, they haven’t been safely preserved in carefully ventilated special collections (in which white gloves must also be worn) and so they too are difficult to digitally reproduce in high resolution and thus impossible to enlarge for display. Those who still possess the sartorial ephemera of their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers wanted to share their stories with me but were very nervous – understandably – about parting with them even temporarily for the duration of the exhibition. [And by the way, as I’ve noted on the original announcement and call for contributions, we ask that you first email a photograph of your contribution (be it a family photo, vintage ads, packaging, garments, or accessories).]
Ironically, the difficulty of finding and acquiring objects for this exhibition only underscores for me how much we need this exhibition and others like it. And not just exhibitions but books, articles, lectures, and, yes, blogs and websites too. While I continue to work on securing funding and materials for the kind of exhibition these incredible social and sartorial histories deserve, I also created a digital archive of the visual and textual materials related to the exhibition. Unfortunately, many of these items can only be viewed online because, again, their fragile condition doesn’t allow them to be enlarged or displayed physically. Still, I hope this digital archive will function as a virtual and conservational space where they might be viewed, studied, and of course appreciated.
I’ve just begun to add images to Of Another Fashion – 16, so far. I have at least another 50 more images to go. I think what you’ll find are vibrant, complex, and touching images and stories of histories that, though not quite hidden, have too long been ignored. If you want to contribute to the recovery of these histories and the reimagining of the very meanings, images, and bodies that constitute “American fashion,” please get in touch! Information about contributing can be found here and here.