It is possible that one of the most significant narratives of women's lives in twentieth-century America is housed in 50 metal lockers in a basement room in the theater department of a women's college in Northampton, Massachusetts. Here, an anthropological road map traces the story from Gibson's girls to the western front to the Dust Bowl to bring the bacon home and onward.
To reach it, go down a flight of stairs and pass through an ash corridor in a windowless space that houses the unofficial collection of Smith College Historic Clothing: 3,000 dresses, clothes, shoes, bags and accessories. They are crammed between racks and cardboard boxes, piled up on padded hangers, stacked on shelves and peeled away in any available corner.
Although the collection includes some designer names (Claire McCardell, Mary Quant) and some garments belonging to famous people (the uniform of Sylvia Plath & # 39; s Girl Scout), most have unknown origins and can be stained, torn, repaired and otherwise imperfect in some way reflects the needs of real life: families, responsibilities, difficulties.
These are the types of clothing that are generally overlooked or rejected by museums and clothing collectors, which tend to focus on fashion as an expression of elitism, artistic ability, aspiration.
Other universities and universities maintain textile and clothing collections, including the status of Drexel and Iowa, but Smith's focus on women's clothing and, more specifically, on women's "social uniforms" – clothing that means identity and functions as part of the archeology of the genus, complete with usage indicators – distinguishes it.
"This is not about couture," said Jan Glier Reeder, a fashion historian who was the curator of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute on Charles James in 2014. (She is also a graduate of Smith). "It's about how we study the past in a very intimate way."
How much is it really worth? While the fate of the collection becomes the subject of debate within the college, it has raised uncomfortable questions about what constitutes "value" in the context of clothes, liberal arts and the current conversation on how we talk about women's history . Even in an institution like Smith: a prestigious women's university and the alma mater of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.
& # 39; Look at the spots in the armpits and see a clue & # 39;
In 1974, Catherine Smith, a college graduate and costume designer, returned as a professor in the theater department. When he began to scour the costumes used in the productions, he discovered that many of them were historical clothes donated by alumni.
Mrs. Smith, whose name is Kiki, began to separate those pieces that were too fragile or potentially important – a traveling dress from 1895, for example – with obvious costumes (the clothes of Shakespearean monks).
It occurred to her, she said, that while these garments are not generally considered valuable, when it comes to providing clues about what it means to be a woman in the America of the twentieth century, they can be worth their weight, if not in gold , at least in semi-precious gems.
"We have libraries of books, which are very valuable, "said Ms. Smith, noting that just like the University collects and preserves paintings and prints, as well as documents such as diaries, yearbooks and letters, clothes can be seen as "newspapers in the lives of women of the past". "My feeling is that this is a very precious asset to save and have for the future."
Yet, said Valerie Steele, the director and principal curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, historically clothes have not been seen as such.
"Old clothes in general are so tied to the body, and in particular to female bodies, that they have not been valued as objects, like paintings, which have been seen as examples of male genius," said Ms. Steele. "They were more like rags that had lived beyond their time." (The F.I.T. museum sees its mission as collecting pieces that are "historically or aesthetically significant in the history of fashion".)
Generally, when building costume collections, the most famous museums not exclusively dedicated to fashion or textiles – the Metropolitan, the Victoria and Albert – look at pieces defined as "exceptional" and "leader". That is, clothing or fabrics that speak to the decorative arts, or moments of great historical significance, in contrast to the everyday nature of everyday life.
But it is exactly everyday life that attracts Mrs. Smith, and it was everyday life that she began to look for when she started building the collection, which defines "a liberal arts archive that advances the academic investigation of women from different sectors economic and social backgrounds through the study of their clothing from the 19th century to today. "
In 1981, he spent nine months of sabbatical at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute as a curatorial assistant to Stella Blum, then costume curator, to learn more about managing a collection.
The clothes come from donations from students, like most university collections, and are bought at auction (including sites like eBay). Ms. Smith finances most of the expense alone and donates the clothes he buys in college.
As the collection has grown and gained a reputation, outsiders have also begun to contribute, such as a donor who, Mrs. Smith said, had volunteered at a women's rights law firm in the early 70's and declared herself a go-go dancer. You saved her out of hours dress partly because of what he revealed about the complications of entering the workforce, and is now in the Smith collection.
Although material culture has been part of several fields of study since the 19th century, it became a more formal discipline after the Second World War. (The Journal of Material Culture was founded in 1996.)
In an increasingly virtual world, the opportunity for students to physically connect with the past has become a powerful educational tool. Most of the university clothing collections would fall into this address book, though few have embraced wear and tear to the point of Ms. Smith.
"Look at the underarm stains and see a clue," said Mrs. Reeder. "A museum also looks for axillary spots, but as something that could disqualify a garment from a collection."
The Smith collection includes several examples of a single type of garment – early twentieth-century school apron, shirts of the '30s and aprons ranging from the purely decorative silks of the mid-nineteenth century to white maid aprons with matching cuffs.
Students can use them to try to make clear the differences in the lives of the women who wore them through, for example, the pattern of fading (had the dress covered with an apron?), The mended, the seams.
There are World War I uniforms worn by Smith students who went where the Red Cross did not want; gingham sports groups, including t-shirt, skirt and shorts, from the end of the 30s; Maternity tops of the years 40 with a label which reads "Blessed Event"; a nun habit of the years that was dismantled every year, so the pieces could be washed and then re-seeded; Diane von Furstenberg wraps the dresses of the 70's; and divided by hostesses of several airlines in the 80's.
With the help of student interns, an online catalog is created. (A student, Beth Pfalz, originally also saw the possibilities of the collection and gave it the name).
The Smith collection is used in history, English, anthropology and even mathematics courses. "Seeing clothing models is deeply moving and telling," said Cornelia Pearsall, an English professor who uses some of the clothes in a seminar, in a video on the collection.
Since Ms. Smith has other full-time responsibilities, however, and since there is no real display space for collection, the number of classes that can access them during a given semester is limited.
"It would take a bit of liver"
Now the question is whether the collection can become more of a crusade than a woman. To do this, it would need funding and formal institutional recognition. Mrs. Smith, 69, is reluctant to retire without a resolution.
He discussed the collection, its future and its uses, with different board positions over the years. "To put it politely, they were skeptical and worried about long-term value," he said.
Stacey Schmeidel, the media relations director of Smith, wrote in an email: "We appreciate the collection", but we noticed that the school has no "intention to create a center or another type of permanent home for this on campus in this moment. If Smith thought of investing in the collection in the future, it would require a considerable fundraising. "
Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith, was not available for comment. Michael Thurston, the new provost of the college, will begin his position in the month of July.
One of the problems is that much of the value of the collection is difficult to quantify. These are notions about the value of honoring and studying the life of women who are not celebrated, not in a specific quantity of dollars linked to the quality of a fabric or to the profile of the person who once wore it.
Even the clothing is expensive to protect and to show; requires appropriate climate and light control and storage. Ms. Smith dreams of a dedicated space for the collection and a dedicated curatorial position.
You estimate that a building or renovation would cost about $ 7.5 million; equipping a chair would add another $ 3 million or so. At a time when higher education institutions are undergoing budget cuts and are under increasing pressure to elevate the STEM disciplines, mathematics for saving a collection of clothes does not necessarily add up.
Especially considering the historical prejudice against fashion as an area of substance. A Article from 2011 in the research journal on clothing and textiles of a group of researchers at Iowa State University concluded that "fabrics and clothing have traditionally been seen less important or less important in museums and in the academic world ".
Mrs. Smith saw the occasion when, in 2015, Smith started soliciting ideas for a new strategic plan, which includes a $ 100 million restructuring of his library, with a project by the architect Maya Lin and the landscape architect Edwina von Gal. Ms. Smith presented a proposal to include the clothing collection in the "special collections" section of the library, but was not included in the plan.
After a previous professional evaluation in 2011, a previous provost suggested that the collection was de-accessed and transferred to another institution, perhaps the nearby historical museum of Northampton, known for its collection of costumes and fabrics.
This makes some sense, since it already has facilities in place for managing clothes. But the distinction between a visualization tool and a study tool, which is the collection point, is also missing.
Sonnet Stanfill, a graduate in Smith who is the curator of 20th century fashion and contemporary at V & A who spoke to Smith in various symposiums on clothing, was initially skeptical about the value of the collection. But, he said, "it was to see how the students of a variety of disciplines interacted with the leaders who really convinced me of the importance of the collection".
In recent years, alumni have been involved, saying that if any college were to celebrate the history and information embedded in women's clothing, if some college has the opportunity to change attitudes both internally and more generally, it should be a school like Smith. And why c & # 39; a new provost, Mr. Thurston (former member of the Historic Northampton Board of Directors), Ms. Smith is continuing her research.
"For a Women's college to celebrate women's clothing instead of feeling somehow devalue college results to study ordinary shmattes? "he said." It would take a little courage. "