Today’s second interview is with Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology .Valerie has made a major impact on the world of fashion and fashion studies. She studied history for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, focusing on fashion history; during a time when fashion history was seen a as a trivial field of study.
Uncanny Pop:What brought you to the The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology?
Valerie Steele: I taught at FIT and was then hired by The Museum at FIT, because my field is fashion history. It is a dream for me to work for a fashion museum. It is a lot of work, but it’s like playing in a way. I feel very lucky to be working on things that interest me. I am very active with lectures, writing books, and traveling.
UP: Tell us more about The Museum at at FIT.
VS: The Museum at FIT is a specialized fashion museum. There are two museums similar to The Museum at FIT in Paris, a couple in Spain, and one in Belgium. Currently the museum has 50,000 pieces ranging from The 18th Century (1700s) to the present.
UP: How did you become interested in fashion?
VS: Every since I was very little, I was interested in the transformative potential of fashion. I wanted to be an actress. I was intrigued by the costumes. My son jokes that I spend more time on TV than a lot of actresses.
UP: What is your favorite decade of fashion?
VS: I am all about now and change.
UP: Currently what is the most popular exhibit?
VS: All 3 of our current shows are very popular; YSL + Halston, Lauren Bacall, and Faking It.
UP: If you had to wear the same thing every day what would you wear?
VS: Black trousers, black t-shirt, black jacket, black shoes.
UP: What shows portray characters with good fashion sense.
VS: Mad Men is very sophisticated in portraying the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Tudors is historically hilarious and unrealistic.
UP: Who are some of your favorite designers?
VS: Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Comme des Garçons.
UP: Who are your favorite fashion icons of the past and present?
VS: From my point of view, Coco Chanel, although I don’t think she would be very pleasant. Present is Rick Owens. Designers today don’t have the same mass audience as in the past. The fashion world is much more fragmented today, divided into many style tribes.
UP: What are the basic pieces every woman should have in her closet?
VS: Depends on their style. If I am traveling to Paris, 3 pairs of dark pants, black T-shirts, walking boots, pair of fancy shoes, and a rain coat. You have to think in terms of your life and your style.
UP: Has the feminist movement succeeded? Why or why not?
VS: It is all relative, there is room for improvement in most of the world of women’s lives.
UP: If you could meet any influential woman, whom would you choose?
VS: Elizabeth I, probably England’s most influential monarch.
UP: What impact has fashion had on Women’s History?
VS: Fashion is a part of Women’s History. I think when you look at the fashions of the past, you can look at the beliefs of others. It [Fashion] wasn’t oppressive. Men make their own history but they don’t make it just as they please. Women didn’t always have the choice of what to wear. The right to wear trousers developed along with a lot of political and social rights. Fashion is something that is important to the economy, the arts, and people’s lives.
VS: The Internet has “democratized” fashion. It has also brought attention to the exploitation of labor workers. People discuss topics rather than only turning to “experts”.
UP: What advice do you have for young girls and women that are interested in starting a fashion?
VS: Be aware that it is a competitive world and you have to figure out what you will do. Not everyone can be an independent designer. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and see where you fit in.
UP: This year the theme for Women’s History Month is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” Why is it important to weave our stories – individually and collectively – into the essential fabric of our nation’s history?
VS: We make sense of our world by telling stories. Historically stories are powerful. Women’s stories weren’t told unless women had fame. Seeing people of color and women of other classes can provide a more accurate picture of what the past was like. I think it empowers young women to know that their story is important too.