Big Think Interview With Valerie Steele
Valerie Steele (Ph.D., Yale University) is Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She has curated more than 20 exhibitions in the past ten years, including Love & War: The Weaponized Woman; The Corset: Fashioning the Body; London Fashion (which won the first Richard Martin Award for best costume exhibition from The Costume Society of America); Femme Fatale: Fashion in Fin-de-Siècle Paris; China Chic: East Meets West; and Form Follows Fashion.Editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture (Berg Publishers), which she founded in 1997, Dr. Steele is also the author of numerous books, including The Black Dress (Harper Collins, 2007), Ralph Rucci (Yale University Press, 2006); The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2001); Paris Fashion (Oxford University, 1988; revised edition, Berg Publishers, 1999); Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now (Yale University Press, 1997; Paris; Adam Biro, 1998); Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power (Oxford University Press, 1996); and Women of Fashion: 20th-Century Designers (Rizzoli, 1991).
She was editor-in-chief of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Scribners, 2005.)Her latest book and publication are both titled Gothic: Dark Glamour (Yale University Press in conjunction with FIT, 2008).
Dr. Steele lectures frequently and has appeared on many television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Undressed: The Story of Fashion. After she appeared on the PBS special, The Way We Wear, she was described in The Washington Post as one of “fashion’s brainiest women.” Often quoted in media, she was herself the subject of a profile in Forbes (1992): “Fashion Professor,” and in The New York Times (1999): “High-Heeled Historian.”
Topic: New York Fashion Week recap
Valerie Steele: New York Fashion Week is the first of almost a month of Fashion Weeks around the western world. It’s followed by London, Milan, and Paris. And they have additional Fashion Weeks in Tokyo, and Johannesburg, and elsewhere. But New York Fashion Week sort of kicks it off in the fall. And we certain see that the upcoming season, they are predicting short skirts, so presumably someone hopes that that old myth about the economy gets better and hemlines go up will hold true. Maybe if we bring the hemlines up, the economy will improve.
Nowadays, it is hard to track any one set of trends because ever since the 1970’s there have been so many different kinds of designers. It’s no longer the way it was in the past where you could say there’s one new look and everybody has to fall in line. So, depending on which designers you go to, you’ll see somewhat different trends. But I think, for example, if you looked at say the Calvin Klein show with Francisco Costa-- that was all about pale colors and interesting textiles. It looked somewhat rustic, but is in fact a very sophisticated kind of textiles that give a loose easygoing approach. And in general, this kind of the skirt but with a loose flowing body to the dress, that’s something we’ve seen at a number of places. So, even someone like Narcisco Rodriguez, who tends to go very close to the body, very body conscious-- even he was somewhat looser. He might have sort of a racer back that was a little body exposing, but then the rest of the dress was sort of free floating and very summery and pretty.
Question: What are the differences between the major fashion weeks?
Valerie Steele: New York has the reputation for being more practical, more sporty, London for being sort of out there, Italy for being sexy, and also sort of luxurious, but no difficult to wear; and Paris for being the most high-fashion, the most conceptual and the most international. It used to be said that America just copied Paris. And in the past, to a considerable extent, that was true, and I think that was really one of the reasons why they moved it so New York Fashion Week was first, and then you couldn’t say, “Oh New York is just copying Paris because it was launching the whole season.” I think, in general, a lot of the most wearable, and this year some of the most affordable things, are going to be coming out of New York.
Topic: The problem with Fashion Week
Valerie Steele: The time lag between Fashion Week and when the clothes hit the stores is a huge and growing problem. It used to be that, although it was the same amount of time, you didn’t really know so much in advance. And now you see it within hours of the show, it’s on the internet, then it’s in the magazines and people are bombarded with information, but by the time it hits the stores, it’s really sort of the next Fashion Week. And people are getting tired of waiting. They’d rather jump in and catch the trends as they are produced by fast fashion houses. So sooner or later, I think there will have to be a reorganization whereby there will be less of a time lag and we will see the clothes and the clothes will arrive in the stores more quickly. And you will be able to also buy them closer to the season because right now, we are seeing the spring/summer clothes in September/October, they’ll hit the stores in sort of, early spring, and there’s this huge time lag.
Valerie Steele: Boots have been a real perennial in fashion because they give a sense of both toughness and also sexuality. We’ve been seeing a lot of boots in autumn and winter there for awhile. What’s new is now the very high boots tend to be seen as sexier. It’s really drawing your eye right up to the thigh, and it’s more expensive. It’s more of a fashion statement. I think a lot of people are going to be buying shorter boots and they’ll get some of that boot magic, but maybe not the real $2,000 extreme fetish-looking boots.
Valerie Steele: Hats have basically been out as a requirement since the 1960’s because the strength of hats was always to show your social status as much as anything else. And once women stopped wearing hats and gloves outside all the time to make a social class statement, and men stopped wear hats to work; after that, hats became either an optional fashion thing, and of course, they can be quite wonderful for that. We have some really interesting milliners, both in the U.S. and in England, in particular, but it is a definite minority, high fashion thing. Or it becomes a practical thing. With global warming, we don’t want all of the sun rays hitting you and so people are protecting themselves with hats. But it’s no longer a de facto requirement of fashion that you need a hat to go with every outfit.
Valerie Steele: I think men have no idea that shoes are among the first things that women look at. So many young women who are still looking for a man, that’s one of the first things that they look at, and if the shoes look cheap, or uncared for, they write the guy off. Women know that men are attracted to high heels, but men don’t realize that women are really looking at their shoes.
Valerie Steele: Jeans are probably the single most significant contribution of American fashion to the world of fashion. And they’ve been a really central part of late 20th and early 21st century fashion. Even in the 70s it had really proliferated, so you had all kinds of high fashion jeans. I think that’s not going to go away, but I think that it’s not necessarily that the $300 jeans that will win out, it’s more of a question of which are the jeans that the cool kids latch onto. Some people really are jeans experts. I am fascinated by the fact that the Japanese are so obsessive about jeans; that they really know exactly what goes into a perfect 1950’s American jean, and they are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a replica, and thousands of dollars for an original. But I think most people are looking for something else in a pair of jeans. It‘s not necessarily the best pair, but maybe just the pair that’s trendy, or the pair that will make their body look best.
The Japanese – well style is important, but the Japanese are looking at: is it made on the same kind of looms? Is it a heavier weight? Some of the deluxe Japanese denim are much, much heavier and the dye process is done much more carefully to replicate the kind of indigo dying. There is nothing produced here that has that kind of workmanship that goes into it. They’ve really sort of fetishized to have the jeans like those jeans from America from the 1950’s. We don’t make them like that anymore, but that’s what they want.
Topic: The evolution of the corset
Valerie Steele: The corset – what made me go into fashion history actually, I had gone to Yale to do Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History. And one of my classmates gave a presentation about two scholarly articles in a feminist journal arguing about the meaning of the Victorian corset. Was it oppressive to women, or was it liberating? And it was like a light bulb went on and I realized fashion is part of culture. I can do fashion history. It was really a wide open field. And I was drawn to the corset because I think it’s the single most controversial garment in the entire history of fashion. I think most people look at it as being something which was deeply oppressive to women and that somehow a patriarchal society forced women to wear it. But if you look at the history more carefully, and it did last 400 years, you see how it’s more complicated than that. Women had a number of reasons why they choose to wear corsets often in the face of mail opposition. I mean, male doctors more or less would say don’t wear corsets, they are unhealthy, they’re bad for you, and they’re bad for your unborn child. But corsets were associated with upper class status because upper class wore them first. They were associated with physical beauty, because that whole hourglass figure, and particularly the waist/hip differential are associated with female sexual beauty and being at childbearing age.
And they were also respectable that if you went out without a corset it was like in the 50’s going out without a bra. I mean, you were bouncing around. It was sort of embarrassing. What kind of a woman would do that? So, if it made you look more upper class, more beautiful, more respectable, etc. and your mother and your grandmother were pushing you, oh, you have to wear a corset. A man can’t dance with you if you are not wearing a corset; he would touch all this flesh – sort of soft flesh. There was a lot of pressure. Often pressure put on by other women for women to keep on wearing corsets.
And when corsets began to go out of fashion, it was in large part because new ideals of beauty came in. So, for example, one of the fashion magazines that I was looking at around 1900, when women still wore corsets, they would ask these actresses, who is your favorite couturier? Who’s your favorite milliner, who’s your favorite corsetiere? And a lot of these actresses would say, I don’t need to wear a corset. And you’d look at the photograph and you’d go, Babe, you are so wearing a corset. But it had already begun to seem that the corset ought to be only necessary if you were old, or fat, or sagging, that somehow you ought to be naturally that beautiful shape. And so people started to internalize the corset through diet, exercise, and now, of course, plastic surgery. So, in a way, it’s not that we gave up wearing corsets, rather as our clothes started showing off more of our bodies, we couldn’t hide behind the corset to just push the fat around anymore. We had to actually do something about the fat.
Question: Will skinny models ever go out of style?
Valerie Steele: Well, it’s true that 100 years ago, people like a woman with a big butt, and big thighs, but they also like women with a small waist and tiny hands. And the fashion ideal changes, the beauty ideal changes, but it changes less than some people think. It’s still very much, the same waist/hip differential that Marilyn Monroe had and Twiggy had, and Elle McPherson had, all of them had a 0.7 waist/hip differential. The breast size may change, but that waist/hip is the same. And that’s kind of what the corset was creating.
There’s been a lot of study on what defines beauty and it’s pretty clear that it’s, cross-culturally, there are a lot of things which are the same, good skin, so no skin diseases, good teeth, and symmetry of features, so you don’t have a lopsided face which might indicate that there was something genetically wrong. And youth. I mean, too bad for us who are getting old, but in fact, universally young people are thought of as more attractive than older people.
Topic: Europe versus America
Valerie Steele: America is a country that has a really strong Puritan heritage and that means a really strong anti-fashion heritage. So, for centuries there’s been the sense-- very widespread in American culture-- that if you think too much about fashion, you’re vain and frivolous and it’s a waste of money. And a lot of women enjoy fashion, but they also feel somewhat guilt or ambivalent about it. At least in France and Italy, there’s much more of a sense that fashion for men and women alike is part of putting your best foot forward and that, of course, you want to look attractive and so on.
Whereas, in America there’s a little bit of that sense that it’s a false mask you’re trying to look richer and sexier and younger than you really are. So, you see a lot of criticism of fashion within our culture. The degree of interest in the latest fashion is only moderate within American society as a whole. People want a little bit of a trend fix, but most of them are not going to go whole-heartedly into a new look every season. Whereas, where you look at France, for example, they might go into a really new look and wear it to death, every day, and then at the end of the season be willing to say, “No, that’s it. It’s over, now we’re on to a new look.” I think a lot of Americans like to think they would want to carry on something that was more of a personal style that they would bring into the future with them.
Topic: Fashion as a dirty word
Valerie Steele: I think that fashion is never really a dirty word for young people. And I think there’s a lot of real enthusiasm for fashion, which we’ve seen come out with the enthusiasm for Michelle Obama’s fashion sensibility as though a lot of American women said, “See, there’s someone who is intelligent and educated and accomplished and she enjoys fashion.” That kind of authorized a lot of women to say, “I enjoy fashion too.” It’s something that is a personal pleasure. I’m not just a fashion victim being exploited by the industry.
Topic: Politics and fashion
Valerie Steele: The museum at FIT is a specialized fashion museum. So, we usually have four shows a year; two special exhibitions and then two in our Fashion History Gallery. A special exhibition this year happened to be on Isabelle Toledo, who we had chosen and given an award to months before Michelle Obama wore her clothes on Inauguration Day. We were able to borrow that outfit from the White House, from Michelle Obama’s closet and put it on display. So, that was the special exhibition. And we traced Isabelle’s entire career.
Meanwhile, in the Fashion History Gallery, every six months, we have a new show that traces 200 years of fashion history with a theme; it could be luxury, exoticism, and color. And I had some of my younger curators and they wanted to have a show that talked about messages in fashion. But that was a really vague topic. What kind of messages? One of the messages they mentioned was politics. And I said, “Look, that’s such a great topic, especially this year. Why don’t you try and do a whole show about fashion and politics? But think of politics in broad terms. Not just what candidates wear, or what their supporters wear, but think of the politics of class, race, gender, sexuality, and then trace this.” So, 19th century denim for example, which talked about class and how working class people wore different things. And then in the end we also had, of course, more specific political things. Paper dresses that supporters of Richard Nixon wore, or a dress that Mrs. Reagan had worn. And then also designs that were created or worn either by Michelle Obama, or by Obama’s supporters. So, all of that was in the show.
Question: Will black ever go out of style?
Valerie Steele: Black’s an interesting color because we think of it as having once been the mourning color, and then later on become sort of the fashion color. But in fact, for centuries there’s been a good black and a bad black. And black has been about mourning and also evil, death, night, etc. But there’s also been a sense that black was an elegant color. Black dye was traditionally very expensive, so aristocrats wore black, and it was ascetic, nuns wore black, but also it was sexy. Prostitutes wore black stockings.
In the 20’s you had the little black dress and it sort of had a chic, as a real reaction to the bright colors that had been in fashion a few years before. Then it went out again. In the 50’s, black was very much a fashion color the designers like Dior and Balenciaga liked because it drew your attention to the lines of the dress. There were no distractions from color or pattern; you were focusing on the silhouette of the dress. And then it went out again for decades. And then the Japanese helped bring in a new kind of sort of avant-garde black, which picks up on all of those things, the charismatic, black of the elegant, and also beatnik black, and the black leather jacket, that kind of charisma of evil that was associated with black. Because not just princes and priests but also executioners wore black. It has layers of meaning. And I think that makes it very useful as a fashion color because you can tilt toward the elegant side, or the diabolical side, the devil’s the prince of darkness, but the dandy’s the black prince of elegance. I think it’s not accidental Chanel made black so central because she was really the first female dandy. So, certainly, everybody loves color, but color comes and goes, but black keeps coming back with all these myriad meanings.
Question: Who has the smartest eye when it comes to style?
Valerie Steele: I think a lot of designers have a really smart eye about fashion because that’s what their life is about; it’s trained to look for new trends. A lot of buyers also are very knowledgeable. But I think a lot of ordinary consumers have become more and more visually intelligent about fashion because they’ve been so deluged with images. I think everyone has an amazing mental rolodex of fashion images that goes through their mind.
I’m in a strange position when I go to fashion shows because I am not looking for the new trend like the journalists. I’m not looking for what I think people will buy, like the department store people. I’m looking for what might trigger something for a new exhibition. Something that will start an idea. For example, when I was working on a show called, Love and War, the Weaponized Woman. I was at the Dior-Couture show a couple of summers ago. And Galliano sent out all of these women in kind of samurai armor, and I was just jumping up and down in my seat going, “That’s my show!” I can’t believe it- I felt so validated that Galliano was doing this which is exactly what I have in mind. And so I called his PR and I said, could I borrow something. And she said, “But Valerie, this is the new show. We have to release the new collection; we have to show this to buyers.” And I said, “You don’t understand, this is my show. It’s so perfect. I have to include something from this collection.” So that was really exciting.
Or, when I worked on my show, Gothic, Dark Glamour. And I started tracking down not just kids who were Goth kids, but a wide variety of designers who were inspired in one collection or another by something gothic. That was really thrilling to track down how the gothic sensibility appealed to different designers in very different ways.
Question: Who do you think of as the all-time fashion greats?
Valerie Steele: Well, if you think in sort of historical terms, all time fashion greats would be people like, Chanel, or Madelyn Vianna, Balenciaga, Charles James, Halston. Today, I think you would have to mention people like Karl Lagerfeld, and John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Mucha, Prada. There are a number of people who are extremely influential on fashion. And that, I think is a big part of what it means to be important in fashion. And one of the things we look at as we run a fashion museum is to try and think what kind of fashion pushes fashion forward? It’s not just enough to do something which is a beautiful version of the current fashion; the important designers push it forward to something new.
Question: Which designers are breaking new ground?
Valerie Steele: In American fashion, I think that the Melevy sisters that Rodarte are extremely creative, and we’ve been buying some of their work for the museum. It’s like buying contemporary art. It’s kind of an educated guess. We don’t know for sure whether they’ll turn out to have an influence in fashion, but they seem so creative and so different and I think what they do is so beautiful, we’re placing bets that we think they’ll be important in fashion.
Question: Who dictates fashion?
Valerie Steele: Nobody really dictates fashion. I think a lot of people believe that designers are kind of cabal who plot that they will have a new style and then that will put everything you have out of fashion. It doesn’t work that way. Most fashion changes incrementally, a little bit season by season. Editors are gatekeepers of a sort- they are presenting what they think are the important trends. And retailers are also gatekeepers of a sort. They buy what they think their customers will ultimately purchase.
But the fashion is not only in clothes, but also in food, and music, and even names. If you name your child Christopher, and you suddenly discover that there are lots of other little Christophers in his nursery school class, there is no group of people who are promoting the idea of naming your child Christopher. There’s no money behind it, no advertising campaign, but names go in trends just as clothes do. It really is kind of mysterious; something in the air moving from what was the most popular style or name, or dance style. Last season, kind of gradually, individual designers can have an input in that, but as Christian Dior said, they’re just proposing, ultimately it’s the customers who decide what’s going to be the new fashion.
Question: What will this era be remembered for?
Valerie Steele: It’s very hard to sum up a decade. And decades don’t really quite work in terms of fashion. We do think of the 70’s as the decade that taste forgot. You know? And the 80’s as a kind of sort of decade of excess, the 90’s of minimalism. Or sometimes people talk about the 90’s in terms of grunge, but that was a much more short-lived term. My guess would be that people will look back at the early 21st Century; they would start to see more and more globalism in fashion. Particularly the rise of Russia and China as more of an influence. These are people who are buying more and more of the fashions. They’re producing more, and I think they are going to be much bigger players in fashion. So, I would guess that when we look back on it, we’ll say, “Oh, we didn’t notice so much at the time,” but a lot of the taste that is being expressed is really appealing to say, the new Chinese high-fashion customer.
Recorded on September 24, 2009
A conversation with fashion historian and chief curator of the Museum at FIT.
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