MA Study trip day three: an afternoon at the Museum of the City of New York with Phyllis Magidson

To tell the truth, none of us had ever heard of the Museum of the City of New York before it appeared on our study trip schedule. Our curiosity was piqued, however, when over the first few days of our visit the name repeatedly popped up as we talked to other curators and archivists. They would cite the dress collection there, telling us how wonderful it was.

We knew it was going to be good as soon as we walked into the impressive rotunda of the Museum lobby. First stop was down to the basement to see the archives, recently rehoused in a specially built state-of-the-art space. Phyllis Magidson, curator of dress and textiles, introduced us to the collection there. A row of stacks was unrolled to reveal a corridor of all manner of colourful hanging garments. Along the other side of the room was flat-lay shelving for the more delicate pieces. Phyllis showed us designs by American readymade designers Claire McCardell and Vera Maxwell as well as from European designers. She explained though that the majority of the items, especially from the earlier years, tend to be couture or designer – reflecting the tastes of the Museum’s patrons and wealthy donors when it opened in 1923. This was just a glimpse of the more than 25,000 items of dress in the museum collection. The common factor that links them all together, and the reason for their preservation in the Museum, is their connection to New York and the (for the most part) New Yorkers who originally owned and wore them.

The second part of the trip took us back upstairs to one of the Museum’s main exhibition rooms and the location of Dressing Room: Archiving Fashion. Open to the public, for two months a selection of items from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s are being photographed as part of an online digitization project and added to the museum’s online database. After having spent the previous few days looking at more traditional methods of displaying dress (thematic exhibitions consisting of a line-up of mannequins), this set-up was immediately engaging and inspiring. By taking a process that might normally be carried out behind closed doors, and turning it into an exhibition for the public, Dressing Room wasn’t so much about the clothes being photographed, as about the practice of the history of dress itself. At one end of the space was a large white backdrop, in front of which were several photographic lights and a camera, poised to capture the mannequin once dressed. A rack of garments held the line-up of clothes, which were delicately taken down, one by one, for their turn in the spotlight. On one of the walls a video was running of garments being photographed at some earlier point – a speeded-up version of what was happening in reality for impatient viewers. It was an inspiring indication of how thinking outside the box in displaying and curating dress might open up new ways of engaging the public with the discipline of the history of dress.

If you would like to take a look at the digitisation project, this short time-lapse video records Phyllis and her assistant in the process of dressing a mannequin (Link to Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/153427642).

Thank-you so much to Phyllis for having us!

A magnificent headpiece by Bill Cunningham for Truman Capote's famous Black and White Ball, 1966

A magnificent headpiece by Bill Cunningham for Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball, 1966

A pair of dressed mannequins

A pair of dressed mannequins

A rack of garments waiting to be photographed

A rack of garments waiting to be photographed