Valerie Steele is director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where she has organized around 25 exhibitions since 1997. Steele combines her curator activity with a more intellectual side. She has been instrumental in creating the modern field of fashion studies and in raising awareness of the cultural significance of fashion.
We talk to her on the occasion of “Deconstructing the Canon”, the keynote speech that she will give at the 2nd Congress of Researchers in Textile and Fashion, taking place at the Auditorium of the Design Museum of Barcelona on November 21 and 22.
When you got into Yale, you realized that fashion was part of wider culture and you could study history of fashion. In what ways can fashion play a significant part in culture?
In the same way as art, literature or music. The crucial thing is to realize that fashion isn’t separate from culture and society, it’s a part of both. It is revealing about people's attitudes, their behavior towards the body, the structure of society, economy, politics. Whatever aspects of culture and society that are particularly important at that time will be emphasized in fashion. For example, in the 1960s there was a real youthquake and the youth all over the world were becoming more outspoken and sometimes rebellious; and that was played out in clothing.
How would you describe today’s fashion system?
You can certainly see what we might call the empire of fashion, a sort of globally unified fashion system which has become much more fragmented or you might say balkanized, so that we no longer have one fashion which comes down from on high, for example, from Paris, from the couture. Instead, from the 1970s to now, fashion has become increasingly diverse with many multiple style tribes. There's no one particular fashion which dominates. Increasingly, people see it as their choice to dress more or less as they please, following whatever trend they choose.
Fashion is often said to mirror the society of a time. Which is ours?
Society is much more fragmented into groups with different kind of small cells of people with their own interests and ideas. This is reflected or expressed in the kind of clothes that are worn. There is a growing economic inequality in society. This is also expressed in the growing division between fast fashion and luxury fashion, with the middle kind of cut-out of the picture. There is no longer much in the way of what you might call ordinary middle-class fashion.
We’re living in a permanent crisis. How is this reflected in fashion?
Unless something is done fairly rapidly about climate change, there is going to be an increasing number of natural and social disasters continuing in the way we've seen. There'll be more heatwaves, tsunamis and climate refugees. There'll be more political populism and right-wing faction of fascism. All of those direct impacts on society will have their own ramifications in terms of fashion.
Historically, fashion exhibitions have tended to be either chronological surveys or retrospectives of individual great designers. However, there are many other important subjects being neglected. The Museum at FIT has focused on thematic exhibitions that aim to advance our knowledge of fashion. You have tended to avoid retrospectives, preferring to compare and contextualize individual designers. Why?
Thematic exhibitions offer a much greater opportunity for curators to make a real contribution to knowledge about fashion. If you're dealing with an individual designer, it can provide knowledge on a somewhat forgotten or neglected designer. But if you're just doing one more show about Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga or Chanel, it’s just a kind of entertainment, bringing people into the museum thing, you're unlikely to be adding very much to the basic corpus of knowledge. It's just more intellectually fulfilling and significant to address themes and topics that haven't been beaten into the ground already.
Does a thematic exhibition encourage a wider audience rather than just fashionistas, designers and fashion students?
Retrospectives obviously will help, there will be popular and they will bring people into the museum, but I think we will have to do something really special to really be adding to your knowledge. It's like in most impressionist art exhibitions, they are really just to bring in the crowds, they don't add anything to our knowledge of impressionism particularly. But I think so, yes. You get different audiences with each show. When we did Gothic: Dark Glamour, we got lots of young people into the museum. When we did A Queer History of Fashion, obviously we had tremendous interest from the LGBTQ community. Black fashion designers brought in a much more diverse crowd to the museum than a regular fashion exhibition would. So yes, of course, you immediately start getting people who identify with some aspects of the exhibition.
Your work as a curator focuses the viewer’s gaze on sexuality, body and gender. How are these introduced in your displays?
It's true that these are all themes that have interested me from the beginning. My first graduate work was really about the erotic aspects of Victorian fashion and had a lot to do with the idea of fashion and the body, but the body is also gendered and individuals are gendered and treated differently. When we did A Queer History of Fashion, I expected initially that we would find from Dior to now, but instead, by putting together a bibliography of research that drew not only on fashion history, but also on gay history and queer theory, it turned that of course there have been queer subcultures since the 18th century in big cities like London, Paris, and Amsterdam; it turned out that the history of gay fashion actually went back a full century earlier than we thought it had. That was a really fascinating component. I think by doing thematic shows, you are encouraged to look at more than one discipline.
How do you understand them?
I probably understand them from a psychoanalytic point of view. Sexuality and gender are very powerful forces in our lives and also in creativity. Many fashion designers from Saint Laurent to Alexander McQueen have talked about how their sexuality is an important influence on their work, and Freud himself thought sexuality was a very important influence on creativity. I guess this question of who you are and how you express who you are through your clothing and your style are very things interesting to me, and it often does relate back to the body.
You also have a penchant for counterculture fashion. Why is that?
It has to do with identity and also of course with my personal life. I left home when I was 15 and went out to live in this kind of lesbian feminist commune in San Francisco. That was sort of at the tail end of the hippie years. Although the punk era didn't really impress me very much, as all my gay friends were into the disco scene, that became part of my life when I was in college. Later on, my style was very much a kind of Japanese avantgarde, which overlapped in a lot of ways with a Goth style. So already by the 90s, I was lecturing to students about Gothic style and its influence on fashion.
Deconstructing the canon is also mirrored in your role as both researcher and curator, when you explore symbols, images and themes that have never been the focus of a fashion exhibition before. Gender identity and fetish clothing are two examples. Why is it important for exhibitions to give voice to these from a social perspective?
It's a question of producing and disseminating knowledge. A museum is really like a university and its role is to produce and to share knowledge. There’s a responsibility to try to do it, because also museums and universities are somewhat protected areas against the political and the commercial worlds that give you more freedom to look at topics not necessarily about making money.
Which topics are still neglected?
Oh heavens. I think there’s more and more interest in the idea of curation itself and of collecting fashion. There's still a lot more that could be done on Latin American fashion. Masculinities, is something that's begun to attract more attention. Time is also a subject that could be addressed in fashion. Those are all topics that have been touched on but could certainly be explored more deeply.
Is fashion still seen as frivolous?
Less than it used to be. It used to just be dismissed as being about women's vanity and frivolity. At the very least, people are willing to acknowledge that it's a multibillion dollar industry. There's still a lot of resistance against acknowledging its importance. For example, the way that sports, which is associated with masculinity, is honored and acknowledged as an important part of society and culture; whereas fashion, which tends to be associated with femininity, also tends to be relatively dismissed compared with something like sports. [The global perspective on fashion] is changing, but slowly. It’s very hard, like moving a battleship around.