Fashion Museums and Exhibits - Terms of Interest to the Fashion Industry

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Fashion designers draw inspiration from a variety of different sources. Some look to fine art while others look to architecture, geometry, or even nature. If you are in search of some inspiration and beauty, look no further than one of these cultural institutions (listed below).

These museums and fashion libraries trace fashion throughout history. Some offer special exhibitions in addition to their permanent collections while others offer quite an education through their vast fashion libraries.

The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York

The Costume Institute houses a collection of more than 30,000 costumes and accessories spanning five continents and as many centuries. Arguably the preeminent institution of its kind in the world, the matrix of The Costume Institute collection was the Museum of Costume Art, an independent entity formed in 1937. Led by Neighborhood Playhouse founder Irene Lewisohn, the Museum of Costume Art benefited from gifts from Irene Lewisohn and her sister Alice Lewisohn Crowley, as well as from theatrical designers Aline Bernstein and Lee Simonson, among many others. In 1946, with the financial support of the fashion industry, the Museum of Costume Art merged with The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Costume Institute became a department in its own right in 1959. The legendary fashion arbiter Diana Vreeland, who served as special consultant from 1972 until her death in 1989, created a spectacular suite of costume exhibitions, including “The World of Balenciaga” (1973), “Hollywood Design” (1974), “The Glory of Russian Costume” (1976), and “Vanity Fair” (1977), galvanizing audiences and setting the international standard for the opulent exhibition of costume, chiefly based on loan items.

Today, The Costume Institute's 5,000 square-feet of gallery space, refurbished in 1992, house two special exhibitions a year based on The Costume Institute's peerless collection. These exhibitions have achieved the defining stature of the earlier Vreeland exhibitions by developing a critical discourse of fashion.

Between exhibitions, The Costume Institute offers a docent-led tour, as well as “The Art of Dress,” a family guide that discusses fashion history within the context of the museum’s vast permanent collection of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, armor, and textiles.

A state-of-the-art costume conservation laboratory is adjacent to the collection, and study-storage facilities housing the collection are accessible, by appointment, to designers, design students, and qualified researchers.

The department’s Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library is one of the world’s foremost fashion libraries. Its collection includes approximately 30,000 non-circulating monographs, rare books, and periodicals, as well as design archives, sketchbooks, photographs, drawings, prints, and extensive files of clippings pertaining to the history and study of the arts of adornment throughout the world. The library maintains 50 current fashion periodical subscriptions, including a wide range of international magazines and scholarly journals.

In the fall of 2002, the museum established the Friends of the Costume Institute, a group that supports the department’s exhibition, acquisition, conservation, and publication programs.

First Ladies at the Smithsonian, Washington, DC

Showcasing premier objects from the nearly century-old First Ladies Collection, this exhibition is divided into three main sections: the evolution of the First Ladies Collection, the tradition of the inaugural gown, and a first lady's contribution to the presidency and American society. On display are 14 dresses including those worn by Laura Bush, Grace Coolidge, Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Taft. The exhibition also features portraits, White House china, personal possessions and related objects from the Smithsonian's unique collection of first ladies' materials.

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Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Los Angeles, California

Since 1991, exhibitions have been viewed in the FIDM Museum & Galleries on the ground floor of the college. February 2000 saw the opening of its expanded galleries. Exhibitions are installed throughout the year, and range from traveling exhibitions to FIDM students' work and FIDM-developed installations. Annually, the FIDM Museum & Galleries presents two major exhibitions: "The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design" and "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design." These exhibitions feature costumes from the previous year's best films and television programs including samplings of Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-nominated costumes.

Kent State University Museum, Kent, Ohio

The Kent State University Museum's costume collection encompasses American and European high fashion from the 18th century to the present day. The majority of early garments in the collection were part of the original Shannon Rodgers/jerry Silverman gift. More recently, two major gifts, the Martha McCaskey Selhorst Collection and the Helen Clark Ward Collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, have augmented the museum's 19th century holdings.

Although the museum's holding consist mostly of 20th century garments, the 18th and 19th century pieces it possesses are of remarkable quality and are one of its greatest strengths. Within the collection of 20th century fashion, most major American and European designers are represented, and many have donated their archives, sketchbooks, and samples to the museum. At the June F. Mohler Library of the Shannon Rodgers and Jerry Silverman School of Fashion Design and Merchandising, the special collections house the archives of the designers Pauline Trigère and George Stavropoulos, among others, and the sketchbooks of Tina Leser. Ongoing gifts from firms such as Calvin Klein and from many individual donors keep the museum's collections current.

The Museum at FIT, New York City, New York

Founded in 1967 by the Fashion Institute of Technology, The Museum at FIT is dedicated to advancing the knowledge of fashion through exhibitions, programs, and publications. The Museum at FIT collects, conserves, documents, exhibits, and interprets fashion.. Its collecting policy focuses on aesthetically and historically significant “directional” clothing, accessories, textiles, and visual materials with an emphasis on contemporary avant-garde fashion. The Museum at FIT is also committed to achieving a world-class standard of excellence in the exhibition of fashion. It organizes an extensive program of specialized classes, tours, lectures, and symposia for diverse local, national, and international audiences. It also serves as a “think-tank” for fashion studies, and is dedicated to an ambitious program of scholarly publications, new initiatives, and research opportunities for students, scholars, and designers.

Texas Fashion Collection, Denton, Texas

Stanley and Edward Marcus had the foresight to preserve examples from the work of top designers featured in their store Neiman Marcus. First assembled in 1938, the brothers founded the collection in honor of their aunt Carrie Marcus Neiman, who co-founded Neiman Marcus with Herbert Marcus in 1907, and became known as the arbiter of taste for the store, especially in the realm of fashion.

After her death in 1953, the collection was maintained by the Carrie Marcus Neiman Foundation. During the early sixties, the Dallas Fashion Group became the first to show an interest in starting their own fashion collection. This motivated group of volunteers secured space in the Apparel Mart and caught the attention of Stanley Marcus. He eventually turned over the Carrie Marcus Neiman archives to the Dallas Museum of Fashion. In addition to staging exhibitions, the Dallas Fashion Group was successful in generating donations of designer clothing from Dallas women.

The Texas Fashion Collection is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and documentation of historically significant fashion. The collection is an educational resource for students, researchers, and the general public.

Known as the Dallas Museum of Fashion when it was first brought to the University of North Texas campus in 1972, the name was later changed to the Texas Fashion Collection. Today, the facility in Scoular Hall houses more than 15,000 items of historic dress as a valuable resource for students and researchers. The Texas Fashion Collection is overseen by Professor Myra Walker. Director and curator since 1987, Walker has organized numerous fashion exhibitions in Dallas, Fort Worth, and New York.

Written by Regina Cooper June 2009 for Apparel Search.

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