Interview with Valerie Steele, Director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

September 12, 2016 | By French Culture Arts
Credit: Michael Kanakis

Valerie Steele has organized more than 25 exhibitions since 1997, including The Corset, London Fashion, Gothic: Dark Glamour; Daphne GuinnessA Queer History of FashionDance and Fashion and the forthcoming Proust’s Muse, the Countess Greffulhe.

She is also the author or editor of more than 25 books, including Paris Fashion, Women of Fashion, Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, The Corset, The Berg Companion to Fashion, and. Fashion Designers A-Z: The Collection of The Museum at FIT.  Her books have been translated into Chinese, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian. In addition, she is founder and editor in chief of Fashion Theory:  The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, the first peer-reviewed, scholarly journal in Fashion Studies. 

Steele combines serious scholarship (and a Yale Ph.D) with the rare ability to communicate with general audiences. As author, curator, editor, and public intellectual, Valerie Steele has been instrumental in creating the modern field of fashion studies and in raising awareness of the cultural significance of fashion. She has appeared on many television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Undressed: The Story of Fashion.  Described in The Washington Post as one of “fashion’s brainiest women” and by Suzy Menkes as “The Freud of Fashion,” she was listed as one of “The People Shaping the Global Fashion Industry” in the Business of Fashion 500: (2014 and 2015).


Dorothée Charles (D.C.): Can you introduce The Fashion Institute of Technology, the University and the Museum?

Valerie Steele (V.S) : The Fashion Institute of Technology is a college of art, design, business, and technology.  Located in New York City, FIT is part of the State University of New York. The Museum at FIT is a specialized fashion museum with a permanent collection of more than 50,000 fashions and accessories from the 18th century to the present, from a robe à la française to the latest designer creations. Our book, Fashion Designers, A-Z: The Collection of The Museum at FIT features 500 of our greatest objects, including fashions by Azzedine Alaia, Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior, etc. 

D.C : How do you think a fashion program at FIT? How many exhibitions do you organize per year?

V.S : The Museum at FIT organizes fur fashion exhibitions every year -- two special exhibitions (such as Proust's Muse, the Countess Greffulhe) and two exhibitions in the Fashion History Gallery (such as the forthcoming Black Fashion Designers,which are based entirely on our own collection). We also hold two symposia every year -- the symposium devoted to Proust and the Countess Greffulhe will take place from 10 am to 5 pm on October 20. It will be free, but reservations are required. In addition, the Museum organizes a public program series called Fashion Culture, with lectures, exhibition tours, and special events, such as a concert of music from the era of Proust.We also hold numerous classes and exhibition tours, both for FIT students and for other groups.

D.C : Proust’s Muse, the countess Greffuhle is based on La mode retrouvée : Les robes trésors de la comtesse Greffuhle, organized in Paris at Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la ville de Paris.  How will you present the Countess at FIT who has inspired Marcel Proust in In search of Lost Time and so many artists?

V.S : We will feature 40 objects from the Countess's wardrobe, plus photographs, films, and a dress inspired by the Countess, designed by Rick Owens, who says that La Mode retrouvee was the best fashion exhibition he has ever seen in that city. We will highlight, in particular, the great Belle Epoque dresses of the Countess, such as the Lily Dress, the Byzantine dress, the Russian Cape, and the splendid green and blue Worth tea-gown. We will also show how her style evolved, first under the influence of Fortuny (which was related to her support of the Ballets Russes) and also her very elegant, mostly black, dresses from the 1930s. 

D.C : This exhibition is more than Fashion. It tells a relation between fashion and literature, art and fashion, aristocraty and artistc elegance. Could you describe one of your favorite dress in the show which questions the image of the beauty ?

V.S : Proust put everything he knew into his great novel -- everything about art, love, society, time,... and fashion. He learned a great deal about fashion from the Countess and from her uncle, the dandy-poet Count Robert de Montesquiou. If you look at the Lily dress, for example, it demonstrates how fashion is far more than a social sign, it is also a form of personal expression, a frozen moment in time, and a type of art. 

D.C : In reference to the Proust Questionnaire :

- What is your greatest extravagance? My greatest extravagance is travel.                             - Who are your favorite writers ? My favorite writers are Proust, Balzac and Baudelaire.          - Who is your hero of Fiction? My hero of fiction is Alice in Wonderland.

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