From Hats to Jeans: What’s In & Out
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.”
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.
Recorded on September 24, 2009
Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at FIT, gives an update on the status of staple items that make or break an outfit.
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