Timothy Long on becoming a fashion curator, peacock feathers, and social media…

Tim working at the store at the Museum of London. Copyright: Museum of London.

Tim working at the store at the Museum of London. Copyright: Museum of London.

“This #fashion business is hard work! Words can't describe how much fun I'm having bringing this collection to you!❤”. Copyright: Tim Long on Twitter

“This #fashion business is hard work! Words can’t describe how much fun I’m having bringing this collection to you!❤”. Copyright: Tim Long on Twitter

You hold a BA in fashion/apparel design. Did you know right after graduation that you wanted to become a fashion curator?

I knew before going into that program that I was interested if not in being a fashion curator, then in old clothes. I was 18-19 and I always had an interest in old clothes, but prior to my studies in fashion design I attended a music performance undergraduate program for two years. In my second year I realised it wasn’t for me; I was with other students who were very passionate for music, I wasn’t on their same level and I became quite jealous that they were so fuelled by something that I didn’t feel.

Also, in my family we have quite a few photographs of my ancestors dating back to about the 1870s and in those images there are women and men (but mainly women) dressed in styles that were very different to what my sister and other women in my family were wearing. It always stood out as something of interest, but a boy on a farm in the mid West is not really pushed into studying old clothes.

This is why I went with what I knew which was music, threatened to drop out, searched about to try and figure out what on earth I was to do, said all this to my course director and she mentioned that I should take a class on anthropology at the university. So, on the first day of “introductions to anthropology” the teacher used the civil war as an example of how a moment can affect material culture, and she discussed architecture, paintings and then she came upon clothing. That was the first time I’d ever hear anyone mention anything related to the study of historic dress and so I went up to her, mentioned to her why I was there, and she said I should look into the study of historic dress and textiles. So I did, and I chose fashion design as there are often fashion history courses.

I am also from a family of dressmakers and tailors, therefore dressmaking and clothing making is something I’ve been around and so it seems natural to me. So I went into undergraduate studies for fashion design but knowing that my goal was not to become a fashion designer, but rather, to eventually use that as a stepping-stone for graduate school in fashion history.

So, how did you end up at the Museum of London?

In order to graduate from my BA in fashion design I had to do an internship, I did that at the Chicago History Museum. My internship was ending at the time I was graduating and at the time I was looking into coming to England for graduate school. But the intern position that I had turned into an offer for a full-time permanent position as a collection manager of the Chicago History Museum’s fashion collection.

I was expecting to be there for a few years and then go to graduate school but that turned into 15 years, and I went from collection manager to assistant curator and then curator. After 15 years and a very exciting career there I began to want to see what else was out in the world, but I knew that if I was to apply for a position, my lack of graduate degree would be key, even though I had great experience of very large, traveling, multi-million dollar exhibitions; publications; and more. So I took a year of absence from my job at Chicago History Museum and came to London College of Fashion.

I was expecting to go back but I fell in love and got married, and so we decided to stay here. My partner is Italian and at the time we didn’t have the option of moving to the US or Italy as gay marriage was not allowed there, and so this was the only country that we could stay together. So I left my job, sold my house, left my family, arrived here and this job became available shortly thereafter. I’ve now been here for almost four years.

Why did you want to devote your career to fashion and textile history?

The reason why is because it is what fulfills my interests. I’ve found my passion. I know that it’s a luxury because I know that many people experience the same feeling I felt when I was at undergraduate school. So that’s why I decided to focus my energy, originally, because I really liked it.

For a long time I didn’t feel that I had a unique voice because I was young and inexperienced, I did not have a graduate degree, I never took label writing, museum nor curatorial studies, and so I felt really out of place very early on. I also had the pleasure of working alongside various seasoned curators very early on in my career who had tremendous influence on me but they just seemed so unobtainable in some way – I think that that was because I was 20-24. But then i found my specific interest, which is to look at the way in which garments are constructed, and I started thinking: “wait, I do, I’ve been around long enough now, I do have a voice, I do have something to say”. And so, that original passion continued to be fuelled by thinking that I might have something to offer. I had enough confidence in myself to have my own perspective.

You are currently working at The Museum of London for the past 4 years. What does your work there entail and your current project ‘Fashion & Science’ is about?

My job as a curator here is split into a variety of general tasks. One is assisting with academic research. Beatrice Behlen and I host about 450 people each year in the store, who are looking at the collection in a variety of ways, from individual undergraduate, MA and PhD students interested in whatever topic we might have, to student groups, so a significant amount of my time is aiding and hosting research.

Also, acquisition, looking at ways of adding pieces to the collections or finding where the holes might be. Recently I’ve acquired quite a bit of things specifically related to menswear – because menswear is a great interest of me.

Another task is considering what type of exhibitions we might be able to produce, from small displays, like next to us here [pointing to his left] is the small show space display, which is a quick rotation of a few cases that we can change every month or month and a half. 1 to 17 objects is the maximum I can put here.

We also have other quick rotation spaces. I am also working on the rotation of the Pleasure Garden display which is a costume display that was installed many years ago and needs a refresher. It is costume from 1735 to 1869 and now I’m beginning to come up with the object list for the 16 mannequins, dressed in styles from those dates.

The curatorial exhibition work involves knowing the collection well so a percentage of my time is just being in the collection. To answer researcher’s requests I go into the store and often I’ll spend extra time looking around just to try and get my eyes onto everything that exists so I know it well.

Additionally we are now about to move the collection, so a lot of my work is beginning to focus on what the new museum might be, so proposing ideas for curatorial work, exhibitions, for public programs, how we can use the collections in new and exciting ways… but then also beginning to prepare to move the collections (so a lot of collection management duties, etc.)

You are responsible for publishing onto the museum’s collections online, but you have gone a step further and are very active in social media too, showcasing some treasures from the museum’s collections. I’m very interested in that engagement with different audiences. Where the idea came from?

Social media was something that I was against for a while, because I did not find any value in it professionally. Although I had a Twitter account I didn’t use it for many years, and I’ve only been on Instagram for less than a year.

But that was wrong actually, I didn’t take the time, and also the reason why there was a negative reaction from me was that we were forbidden at first here to post anything related to the museum and that is because of licencing and copyright, intellectual property etc. And also, I think, there is a general negative reaction to social media that most museums have, fearful that they are going to be sending out stuff that they can make money on, fearful of it being taken the wrong way.

But then I started to prepare for launching my personal website. I was going through my CV and, in my previous job I had about two exhibitions that I curated per year, ranging from 35 objects up to 120 objects – medium size to large – multimillion-dollar exhibitions. When I was then updating my activity at the Museum of London my activity all but ceased, dried up, because we don’t have galleries here, we have one that is rotatable, and so all of a sudden was all this dearth of work as a curator. So I started to worry that if people were to look at my CV they would think, “what has he been doing for this last years? Why has he gone from 30 some odd major exhibitions to none?”.

It was about that time that the communications department here were starting to urge us to consider social media. We were maturing as an institution at the same time that I was starting to think that it could actually be a platform to talk about my work. I can have a voice here instead of waiting to produce an exhibition of substance, which might take years, I can talk about the collection through social media.

And also to finally answer this quest, I’ve had been trying to replicate those Aha! moments I have often in the store when I open a box and gasp because there is something amazing inside. Or when I bring people with me into the store, students or researchers, they also have those gasping moments, so it’s been a career long obsession to try and replicate that. If you put something on an exhibit it’s quite slick, so you really you don’t have the aha! moment of opening a box or a drawer.

How did it happen, was it planned?

All of that clicked one day and I decided to post a photo of what I was doing and it got a decent response, but although I thought it was interesting, I was sort of scolded by the museum because I didn’t put copyright in the image. But I protested, I think it shows something quite negative because most of the museums don’t put copyright in their images. Thankfully the response that I’ve got was positive.

Then I started posting videos which have got a great response, and it’s been remarkable. It kind of came about not in a very active way originally, but now I see it as a very high value, the museum sees it as a high value. Almost in every moment seems to be something tweetable or intagramable because I work with very cool things.

And where do you want to go with it?

Now we are starting to mature the idea, I’m getting better devices. Right now I’m doing it just with my phone, so sometimes you can see the shake in my hand or it’s not smooth, so I’m getting some devices to hold the phone and to make the transition smoother. We’ve tried to do it a bit more slick but I think that sort of goes against the idea. I’ve also tried with different software to put digital labels instead of the paper ones, but almost immediately people say: “bring back the paper labels!”.

It’s amazing, because never in my job outside of those aha! moments in the store, do we get that immediate experience, although with the ability to communicate the kind of questions that one might naturally ask if they are at an exhibition. I don’t have to wait for an exhibition now, I can find how I write labels or how I talk about labels based on the feedback I get from social media.

Twitter used to be my main focus but now the activity has gotten much greater on Instagram once they increased their video length… some of them having currently more than 45,000 views. Instagram seems to be a much greater reach and presents a much greater discussion – it also seems to be a 24h response.

Moreover we are about to do our first live presentation through Facebook at the end of October, trying to push the envelope a bit with what I do on social media and think a bit outside of the box now that the response has been so great.

The Fashion and Science project and the re-dress of the Pleasure Garden are two projects that we were hoping to use the research as things to promote on social media, so instead of an exhibition only being promoted once it’s open, now we are using the re-dress, the conservation, the mounting of the mannequins, the selection process… as something that we post on social media instead of “now it’s open, come look”, so that’s something new we are experimenting with now.

Social media is something that before would’ve been part of my job, but now it’s a task in my PMD. It’s something I really want to do and the museum wants to have embedded it in what I do as a curator.

What is your favorite piece from the collection and/or over the years?

The favourite piece I’ve ever worked with would be the Charles James “Puffer Coat”. I did my dissertation on James, I’ve curated an exhibition on Charles James and then recently I’ve published a book with the V&A about James “Charles James fashion designer in detail”. So one of my all time favourites is the Charles James Puffer Coat, late 1930s white acetate satin coat. And I’ve got a project brewing just on that piece. I had the pleasure of working with it, I figured out how it’s made, I’m not sure if others have yet, so I’d like to publish something on that.

Here at the museum my favourite item shifts – as you can imagine – but currently it is this beautiful late-18th Century men’s ensemble that is being considered for the re-dress of the Pleasure Garden. It is silk satin with an embroidered peacock feather in silk thread.

If I remember well, you posted this piece in social media?

Yes I did. And when I posted it I did not click that there was a peacock feather. Until Paul Bench (colleague, friend and follower on social media) asked if that was a peacock feather. What is exciting about that is that my understanding of the term peacock as a way to describe a flamboyantly dressed men is something that I thought was mostly in the 1960s.

Finding this jacket and the embroidered feather made me question how long men have been referred to as peacocks and I found out that it is actually quite old. I found a reference that the 14th Century is the earliest time a man was referred to as a peacock, who was flamboyantly dressed. So that means that in the 18th Century the term had been around for many hundreds of years, and so this man, wearing this exquisite piece with a peacock feather was certainly not coincidental. The kind of humour that is involved in that, the concept of perhaps a dandy represented here earlier than we think (typically of dandies is the 19th Century). We don’t know anything about the original wearer but now we have a little bit more. He would potentially have ordered it that way, he would’ve taken great pride in wearing it.

Because all of that is why right now this piece is my favourite, but that might change soon when I find another amazing piece.

You can check Timothy’s social media work on:

Twitter @fasion_curator https://twitter.com/Fashion_Curator

Instagram as @timothylongfashioncurator https://www.instagram.com/timothylongfashioncurator/