Red Capes and Glitter Jelly Heels: An Interview with Curators Colleen Hill and Ariele Elia

1.Museum at FIT website with image from the Comme des Garçons, Spring 2015 runway show

Museum at FIT website with image from the Comme des Garçons, Spring 2015 runway show

Unlicensed copy of Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress, rayon crepe, black and gold seed beads, c. 1925, USA, 76.125.1

Unlicensed copy of Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress, rayon crepe, black and gold seed beads, c. 1925, USA, 76.125.1

Detail of "Little Horses" dress

Detail of “Little Horses” dress

I first met Colleen Hill, associate curator at The Museum at FIT during a visit to the museum archive to research garments by Emmanuelle Khanh in 2008. We bonded over our love of 1960s fashion and French culture. I met Ariele Elia, assistant curator, in 2011 at an exhibition opening—she was dressed as an 1890s tennis player and I went in 1860s croquet wear. And on 13th January the three of us caught up over coffee on 7th Avenue.

What were your reasons for choosing this career path?

CH: I’ve loved fashion, museums, and writing for as long as I can remember. I can’t imagine a job better suited to my interests.

AE: From a young age I was exposed to the inner workings of the fashion industry. My mother started off as a fashion designer, but ended up owning a series of women’s apparel boutiques. While working in her stores I enjoyed learning about the business side of fashion, but was more fascinated with the creative process of the designers. In college I majored in Art History, and almost went on to pursue an M.A. in that field, until I realised Fashion History existed. However, this was not a viable career option in California. So I moved to New York to continue my studies and could not be happier about that decision.

Your current project?

CH: I’m opening an exhibition in February 2016 called Fairy Tale Fashion. It will use both historical and contemporary garments to illustrate more than twelve fairy tales, including well-known stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty.” In addition to offering a brief history of the fairy tales and their significance, the show will highlight their direct references to fashion.

AE: Currently I am co-curating an exhibition titled Global Fashion Capitals, set to open in June 2015. The first half of the exhibition looks at dynamics that allowed Paris, New York, London, and Milan to become established as global powers in fashion. While the second half of the exhibition explores emerging cities that attempt to rise as new fashion capitals, including Istanbul, São Paulo, Seoul, Mumbai, and Shanghai.

Your current object of fascination in the collection?

CH: I’m currently researching a hooded, red cape from the eighteenth century.

AE: I am fascinated with Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress from 1921. While researching for Faking It, I had found a few versions of this dress that I had assumed were unauthorised copies, including the one in our collection. Recently I had discovered that Eva BOEX, a French atelier was authorised to create copies of the dress. The description of her version is very close to the one in our collection, so I am hoping to find a sketch to confirm my findings.

Can you discuss your curatorial vision? What do you enjoy most about curating? What aspect do you find most challenging?

CH: I’ve organised numerous exhibitions in the Fashion History Gallery at The Museum at FIT, which are intended to be straightforward, educational, and, of course, historical. Within those parameters, I tend to select topics that are subtly provocative. For example, I’ve curated exhibitions about the role of women in the fashion industry, gender and fashion, sustainable fashion, and lingerie. I aim to put together shows that are accessible and entertaining, but also intelligent.

I find nearly every aspect of curatorial work to be enjoyable, but identifying a small but crucial bit of research is especially rewarding.

Like most curators, I would imagine, one of the most challenging aspects of my work is meeting short deadlines.

AE: I have curated a few exhibitions in the museum’s Fashion and Textile History Gallery. I love to investigate interdisciplinary topics within fashion such as fashion and technology and fashion law.

The aspect I enjoy most about curating is studying an object. It is incredible what a garment can tell you by just observing it.

One aspect that I am constantly working to improve is editing. There is so much information a curator would like to tell their public; however a curator must synthesise the content into a digestible form. I don’t want to overwhelm someone visiting the museum for the first time, but I also want to maintain an academic standard to a fashion historian. It’s a difficult balance!

Can you name an exhibition that marked you?

CH: My earliest museum memory is going to see Colleen Moore’s fairy castle at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It’s essentially a massive, meticulously constructed doll’s house. I was completely fascinated by its beauty and intricacy, and also the way it was presented—with only one part of the castle lit at a time, allowing the visitor to focus on its details. I’m obviously still interested in fairy-tale worlds!

AE: Stylized Sculpture: Contemporary Japanese Fashion (2007) was the first fashion exhibition I had seen. I was in awe over the incredible shapes of the garments designed by Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto. It was here that I realised there were other people that spoke the same language I did.

Can you discuss a personal fashion memory?

CH: I found a copy of Radical Rags by Joel Lobenthal in my local library when I was ten years old. I became completely obsessed with it. The book affected the way I dressed, my interest in music, and my future career choice.

AE: I always have fond memories of my mother getting ready for work. She was a huge fan of Donna Karan in the 90s. Her 7 easy piece collection worked perfectly for my mom and her busy schedule. She always looked so elegant in her black wrap skirt, body suit, and large gold belt. I wish I could emulate her style.

Can you discuss an item of clothing or an accessory that you no longer have but still think about?

CH: I purchased a pair of Dr. Martens when I was about 14. They were brown with a subtle cheetah print. Since the shoes were second-hand, they didn’t even fit well, but I wore them with everything.

AE: When I was about 10 I owned a pair of glitter jelly heels. In the heel was an Eiffel Tower that floated in water and glitter like a snow globe. I wish I would have kept them!

If you could be dressed by any past couturier, who would it be?

CH: André Courrèges.

AE: Charles James. I absolutely love the architectural shapes he created! He made the women he dressed look so elegant. I wish I could have his Butterfly dress remade in lavender.