FIT’s Valerie Steele on Why Paris Won’t Ever Be Dethroned as the Capital of Fashion
Valerie Steele’s deep contextual dives into the history of fashion set her apart from other academics and curators—two identities she embodies in equal parts. The chief curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (since 1997 and 2003, respectively), she has produced upwards of 25 exhibitions while also, over the past 15 years, leading the institution.
No corner of fashion is out of bounds for the charismatic and multifaceted Steele. Past exhibition subjects have ranged from corsets to gothic fashion to queerness to the color pink. Writing, too, has been a major part of her unabating scholarship, as is evident in her authoring or co-authoring of nearly 30 books over the past few decades—the first of which, on fashion and eroticism, was a product of her final Ph.D. dissertation at Yale in the early ’80s.
For Steele, clothes aren’t just tangible garments—they’re the constant medium through which to better understand things like politics, psychology, sexuality, and time. (Perhaps not surprisingly, in 2012, Suzy Menkes of The New York Times dubbed her “the Freud of Fashion”—a moniker Steele relishes.) Her rigorous, vibrant exhibitions—and her career as a whole—are the ultimate clapback to academics who once snubbed her studies as frivolous. Her next Museum at FIT showcase, “Paris: The Capital of Fashion” (on view from Sept. 6, 2019, to Jan. 4, 2020), collects roughly 100 objects that exemplify the “cultural construction” of the French city, from the 18th century to the present, contextualizing the evolution of artisanal haute couture into big business.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Steele and Spencer Bailey discuss her ongoing obsession with the city of Paris, academia’s continued distaste for fashion as a subject of worthy inquiry, her circuitous path to FIT (she dropped out of school at 15 and lived in a “lesbian feminist commune” before attending Dartmouth for undergrad and Yale for her Ph.D.), and why luxury menswear is on the rise.
Steele talks with Bailey about her upcoming Museum at FIT exhibition “Paris: The Capital of Fashion,” and recalls her lifelong obsession with the French city.
Steele remembers her upbringing in Boston and Washington, D.C.; a year in her teens spent in San Francisco, where she had run away from home; and her studies at Dartmouth and, later, for her Ph.D. at Yale.
Steele reflects on the evolution of her path-breaking career, from the largely well-received publication in 1985 of her first book, Fashion and Eroticism, to being appointed director of the Museum at FIT in 2003.
The two discuss Steele’s respective approaches as chief curator and director of the Museum at FIT, and also her thoughts on how fashion is represented and presented in other institutions, including at the MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Steele speaks about the intersection of fashion and psychology, fashion’s “problematic” relationship with time, and the rising global awareness of the clothes we all wear.
SPENCER BAILEY: Valerie, welcome to Time Sensitive. It’s great to have you here today.
VALERIE STEELE: Thank you. Nice to be here.
SB: Obviously, you’re a curator, a writer, a fashion historian, but I kind of wanted to start in an area that perhaps is more timely—or relevant—to your work, and obviously connects to all of those things, but maybe isn’t necessarily about curating, writing, or even history [outright]. It’s just Paris. I want to talk about Paris.
VS: Okay, Paris, yes.
SB: Because you have this exhibition that’s opening this fall about Paris, and, of course, Paris has been a huge part of your work over the years. Dating all the way back to 1988, you did the book Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, which has had newer editions since, including one that came out last year. So let’s just talk about Paris, before we even get into curating and work element. What’s your fascination with Paris? When did you become interested in Paris?
VS: The first time I went to Paris I was in college. I was actually studying German, and I spent every weekend going over from Mainz to Paris. The German family I was living with was kind of perplexed by this, and kept saying, “Aren’t you going to go to any German cities?” But I just fell in love with Paris. And then, of course, once I realized that I was going to study fashion history, well, Paris is the place. Paris has branded itself as a “fashion city” for centuries.
SB: Everyone’s kind of got a myth of Paris in their mind. Even as kids, you hear about this place called “Paris.” What was yours? What idea of Paris did you have in your mind?
VS: Wow, I guess my Paris must have been the Paris that was the center of the art world, so it was a 19th-century image of Paris. That was where all of the artists were creating modern art, whether impressionism or early twentieth century art. Which is interesting in relation to fashion because, of course, Paris lost its position as capital of the fine arts, but it managed to retain it as capital of fashion and luxury. So that was an interesting example of how leadership and power could switch from one city to another. How, as the French put it, New York “stole” the idea of modern art.
SB: It’s clear, just even in the conversation already, the depths at which you have come to understand [Paris]. How did you approach it in the first place, when you were doing that book back in 1988? I mean, how does one even come to conceive of, like, “Okay, I’m going to be able to somehow capture the dynamic of this …?”
VS: Well, that was the great thing about moving into fashion history so early. You could do these enormous, big topics, which are absolutely absurd—I mean, how could you do a cultural history of Paris fashion?! That’s an enormous topic, even if you’re focusing on the nineteenth century, as I was for that first edition.
I guess my epiphany came with that book when I realized that it wasn’t just a question of the structure of the fashion industry, and the help that the state gave the industry and the way that couture was structured; it was also about the culture of fashion in Paris, and how so many people, ranging from milliners to actresses to poets to painters, all thought fashion was important and that it was a sign of modernity, so it was something worth talking about. That was what really intrigued me. Because, of course, in America, there’s been a very different kind of Puritan tradition, where fashion was something to be despised and looked down on, that it was the favorite child of capitalism, that it was a sign of vanity. As Thoreau said, “Beware of any occasion that requires new clothes”—something that’s not good. So, here in Paris, you had, on the other hand, someone saying, “This is art, this is really important, this is the ultimate sign of modernity.”
SB: Now Paris has such a stronghold, not only on the fashion industry, but just in terms of how people even think about fashion.
VS: Exactly. I mean, the very word “fashion”—and the idea of fashion as a changing thing—we associate with late-seventeenth century France. And the idea of regularly changing seasonal fashions, which originated with the elite and diffused around the world to other people—that really comes from Paris.
SB: Tell me a little bit about this exhibition that’s opening this fall [“Paris: The Capital of Fashion”]. How did you conceive of this exhibition? Does it stem back to this book you did thirty years ago?
VS: Actually, not really. I had just revised the book for the third time, and really completely rewritten Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, because there’d been so much new research done that I wanted to incorporate [into] that. But then, a few years ago, a couple of my younger curators had done a show about global fashion capitals, which led me to be thinking more about, if globalization has spawned fashion weeks everywhere, from Lagos to São Paulo and from Mumbai to St. Petersburg, where does that leave Paris? In a way, globalization has just reinforced the strength—the oligarchy—of the big four fashion capitals: Paris, New York, Milan, and London. But even within those four, Paris has become more and more powerful. So while Shanghai—the mayor of Shanghai talked about how they wanted to be the fifth or sixth fashion capital, if you assume that Tokyo was in there—in fact, it’s probably going to shrink down to maybe three.
People are exhausted traveling every month. They really just want to see the best of the best, which is Paris. So I got the idea, really, of looking just at the phrase “Paris: Capital of Fashion” because of a French scholar who looked into the idea of the phrase the “Belle Époque” and when did that develop? And what did people mean by it? How did filmmakers treat that, etc.? So, I thought, Hmm, I wonder if you could trace the idea of “Paris: Capital of Fashion” and see how that developed—how the ideological construction of Paris as the “capital of fashion” developed.
That led me to a new way of approaching Paris, by putting it directly in this global context, and see how the French talked about it, how other people in other countries talked about it. Although there was a path between the splendor of the royal court and the spectacle of the haute couture, that was a path which was partly constructed over the course of centuries, as they would look back and go, “Oh, yes, it began here,” whereas they weren’t really aware of that until much later.
SB: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting that you use the word “construct,” because I think about, if global fashion were a house, Paris would really be one of its core foundations.
VS: Yes, and, of course, there’s a reality to this myth of Paris. It really did play a very important, perhaps a unique, role in the history of fashion. But most attempts to look back at Paris as the center of fashion have further mythologized it, made up this genealogy of genius, as though brilliant designers just popped up like mushrooms after the rain along the Seine, and as though there was literally something in the air of Paris that made it the center, or just naturally the savoir-vivre of France emerged there. In fact, obviously, it is constructed over time, not just as the result of French propaganda—although that was part of it—but also because people around the world were able to benefit from using the idea of Paris as the capital of fashion.
So, for example, Louis the XIVth’s finance minister, [Jean-Baptiste] Colbert, famously said, or apocryphally said: “Fashion will be for France what the gold mines of are for Spain.” In other words, this is where we’re going to make our money: fashion and luxury. But also the idea that a lot of Americans—say, New Yorkers—have made a lot of money by using the idea of Paris. Copying licensed copies of Chanel at Ohrbach’s: Here’s the original Chanel couture suit; here’s the Ohrbach’s copy. And you’d have fashion shows where all of New York’s elite would come in and look at the Ohrbach’s copies and be wearing them. Individuals got prestige from wearing Paris fashion; manufacturers, retailers in New York made a lot of money promoting Paris fashion. Later, American designers made successful careers saying, “We’re not doing Paris fashion! We’re doing American fashion, it’s different.” A lot of people use this idea in different ways.
SB: Yeah, it makes me think about Thom Browne, who’s an American designer who is headquartered here in New York, but shows at Paris Fashion Week.
VS: Yes, this was one of the things that factored into my doing this show [“Paris: Capital of Fashion”] and editing this new book [of the same name], because there was so much discussion and so much anguish in New York that we were somehow losing a lot of our best designers. And I remembered, years ago, talking to a European fashion journalist after one of Thom Browne’s shows in New York, and the person said to me, “He’s too good to be showing here. He should be showing in Paris”—this idea that the best of the best went to Paris.
SB: I mean, I think it’s no mistake that some of the strongest, most respected brands in fashion and luxury—Chanel, Hermès, Van Cleef & Arpels—these are companies that were born in and are based in Paris.
VS: Absolutely. And those companies built and maintained a prestige. And, in fact, in recent years—because of the big fashion and luxury conglomerates like LVMH and Kering being based in Paris—that’s reinforced more than anything, I think, the strength of Paris. You have the headquarters of the biggest luxury companies there, as well as the independent fashion companies like Chanel and Hermès being based there. That has tremendous power.
SB: I think about heritage and luxury in this context, and also even, in more recent years, art. You have someone like the Arnaults creating the LVMH Foundation or—there’s such investment going into these sorts of cultural institutions—the Cartier Foundation, Galeries Lafayette has their own—
VS: Yes, exactly.
SB: What’s your take on the sort of presence of these companies culturally, outside of fashion? Even helping fund the rehabilitation of Notre Dame?
VS: Well, I think that it helps fashion and luxury companies tremendously to be associated with art and culture. When couture had hardly emerged—haute couture—in the second half of the nineteenth century, before ready-to-wear really took off and a retail revolution with department stores, you had to emphasize the difference between haute couture and what “little dressmakers” and mass manufacturers did. And you said, “Well, what we’re doing is art, it’s luxury, it’s high culture. It’s genius original designers, and it’s distinguished, cultivated ladies who are presenting themselves, not just the masses wearing mass-produced clothes.”
The more you associate yourself with high art now—which has become fetishized more than ever before as being this special kind of thing, with an aura around it; where else will you get people spending millions and millions and millions of dollars in these bidding frenzies at auctions?!—you associate fashion and luxury with that. It makes it really powerful. It makes the [Louis Vuitton] Murakami handbags even more desirable, or the Jeff Koons backpacks [also by Louis Vuitton] even more desirable, when they’re associated with the art, which is selling for a hundred million dollars.
SB: She talked a lot about craft—got very deep into craft. And obviously, that plays such a huge part in understanding how these brands have their strength. At the same time, with technology, with all the shifts in manufacturing that have happened over the last thirty, forty years, that idea has also had to change and evolve. How do these brands, in your mind, compete? How do the Paris fashion companies show how their savoir faire, their know-how, is beyond, what, say, somebody can do in China?
VS: Well, this again, in a way, goes back to the nineteenth century. When [Charles Frederick] Worth transformed couture, sewing, into grand couture, big couture, haute couture, it was by moving it away from craft toward big business and high art, creative industry. It was no longer small-scale craft, with sewing and embroidering and a few little people, but building an empire, with teams of seamstresses, teams of embroiders.
Of course, Paris still has some of those famous embroidery companies, feather companies, leather-working companies—they play a crucial role in maintaining the image and the reality of quality in high fashion, whether it’s literally haute couture or just really high fashion, like Hermès. But you can also get very good hand-workmanship done in India, if you’re willing to work consistently over time with craftspeople to maintain quality. They have tremendous skills there. And you could be working with craftspeople much more—in Africa, in Southeast Asia, there are still living national treasures who know how to do things, but it’s not usually considered economically worthwhile to do that, to enter into those partnerships. A few high-end fashion designers, like Dries Van Noten, have worked for years with embroiderers in, I think, Gujarat, in India, but it takes a real effort to do that.
A lot of times, most luxury companies really are blurring that, and so the craft—well, there are handworkers, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re well-paid, professionalized craftworkers in France. They could be immigrant Chinese laborers in Italy who are working away on something in very sordid conditions. So it’s very difficult for the consumer to know where the craftsmanship is coming in. Even the most expensive and luxurious brands use a mixture of craftsmanship and high technology, and often sweated labor as well. So that’s difficult to find out; we obviously need a much more transparent industry.
SB: How is that social upheaval, let’s call it, changing the face of these Paris companies or Paris fashion? Connected to that, I guess, how is the climate crisis, issues of sustainability—think: fur, alligator skin, things like that; a lot of those brands are built on those materials—how is all that shifting Paris culture in terms of fashion?
VS: Well, different companies are taking different approaches to it, but, of course, you’re quite right that sustainability, both in terms of destruction of the environment, in terms of killing animal species and exploiting workers, this is really a major issue. And it’s one thing to say, “Fast fashion is to blame”—and fast fashion does have a disproportionate share of the blame in terms of destroying the environment and exploiting workers, but luxury fashion is not so pure in and of itself.
Yes, it’s better to buy less and buy better, and hold onto it for longer or trade it in, and have somebody else buy it secondhand, but again, you still don’t know—different companies are taking different points of view about, say, the use of animal products. On the one hand, the Everglades are overrun with pythons. I mean, there are bounty hunters—[the pythons] are eating everybody’s dogs. On the other hand, we know that in Southeast Asia pythons are being driven out of the last remaining forests by very impoverished peasants who are hunting them down. So you’re saying, “Well, can I buy those snakeskin boots or not? Are they being farmed in Florida? Are they still being hunted down in Indonesia? Where do they really come from?” That’s still an issue. I still don’t know, frankly, even as a fashion scholar, can I wear snakeskin boots or not?
SB: [Laughs] Before recent books like Bill McKibben’s Falter or David Wallace Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth, before these books came out, and larger concerns have come about the climate crisis and sort of end-of-world apocalypse scenarios, I think people could get much deeper into fashion and kind of not see it as some sort of “frivolous” thing. How do these brands contend with that, this idea of luxury in that context?
VS: Well, maybe, the sad thing is, for all that people talk about how they care about the environment, scholarly studies have shown that actually very few people are voting with their wallets to look into things which seem to be environmentally better. Although a lot of people profess an interest, and presumably have a sincere interest, nevertheless they’re still kind of buying things willy-nilly. So I don’t think the companies really have a lot to worry about yet; they’re trying to get ahead of the curve, realizing this is an issue, and trying to deal with it in a way that is valid, but it’s so hard for the customer to tell what’s greenwashing and what’s a sincere and effective way to deal with these issues.
SB: Is there a company or a brand, in Paris or otherwise, that is sort of an exemplar of this in a positive way? I think immediately of Nike, and of what Hannah Jones, who’s their chief sustainability officer, has done there. Are there companies in that sort of area that you’ve followed, or that have done something that has surprised you in terms of a sustainability initiative?
VS: Well, we know Kering has sustainability initiatives; we know that Stella McCartney, who’s been very in the forefront of working on that in luxury fashion, is now signed with LVMH and is going to work on sustainability with them; Patagonia has been kind of a model company in terms of [sustainability in] sportswear. It’s just hard to know whether you can put a positive spin on a capitalist system, which is sort of basically built on excess and obsolescence. And, of course, it’s also easy for people in our Puritan culture, who are critical of fashion, to say, “Fashion is really to blame.” Maybe our sneakers are really even more problematic; maybe our electronics, which involve often rare and sometimes dangerous-to-mine minerals, are even more dangerous. But we’re really wedded to our cell phones and we really love our sneakers. So we’re less likely to criticize those than frivolous expensive fashions that we associate with skinny rich people that we don’t know. [Laughs]
SB: It’s funny, though, that you mention smartphones and sneakers. Those have been elevated to the level of luxury.
VS: Exactly, they have, of course. Because we really want them. And companies that wouldn’t have touched them before now realize that, just as much as an expensive luxury watch, a smartphone is a luxury item.
I was putting together “Paris: Capital of Fashion”—I have a beautiful eighteenth-century fan, all lavishly decorated with a painting of Versailles. That [fan] is like somebody’s latest model cell phone that they would have whipped out to show just how au courant they were.
VS: They totally are. And yes, back in ‘99, when I did my first shoe book [Shoes: A Lexicon of Style], I did it by category: sandal is an old kind of shoe; boots; and then I had a chapter on sneakers, and I knew so little about sneakers. I flew to London to interview this sneaker expert because I was like, “Talk to me about Manolo Blahniks, but I don’t know [about] sneakers!”
SB: [Laughs] And now there’s Hypebeast.
SB: I want to go back to your childhood, your youth. I actually don’t know—and wasn’t really able to find out—that much. Where did you grow up? What did your parents do?
VS: I was born in Boston, where my dad was a student at Harvard Law School and my mother was a housewife—even though she’d gone to Radcliffe when she was sixteen, and she had gone to Harvard Business School afterwards and gotten a degree. This was back in the ’50s, so you went home and you were a housewife.
I grew up for a while in Boston, a very unfashionable city, and then moved to Washington, D.C., which in the white neighborhoods was a very unfashionable city—black neighborhoods [there] were more stylish. Dropped out of school when I was fifteen, ran away and lived in San Francisco in this sort of lesbian-feminist commune. Because, when I went out there, I went to an underground newspaper, and I showed up and said, “So, you were saying soldiers should go AWOL, prisoners should escape? Here I am!” And they said, “Oh my God, you’ll get us in trouble!” And I’m like, “Some revolutionaries you are.” And they said, “Well, maybe these lesbians can help you,” and they, of course, were much ballsier. Then I got a fake ID and so on.
Eventually, a year later, I went home, and then I applied to colleges. I never actually graduated from high school. I got a high school equivalency, but any eight-year-old could get that. So I applied just to Ivy League schools, and I got into Dartmouth. I tested well and interviewed well, but as they said to me at Harvard, “We really don’t think you’re ‘Harvard material.’” So I went to Dartmouth. Then I went to get my Ph.D. at Yale, and it was there that I had my epiphany and realized that I wanted to do fashion history. I’d gone there to study cultural history.
SB: This little adventure to San Francisco—was that teenage rebellion? Where did that come from?
VS: Yeah, I guess it was teenage rebellion. When you’re a teenager, you feel like you’re immortal. I wasn’t getting along with my mother, and I was really bored at my prep school. The principal was always like, “Well, you’re so insolent, and you’re so difficult.” So I just left. That was my little adventure. Fortunately, San Francisco was a totally easy place to be.
SB: This was in the sixties?
VS: Seventies. I’m not that old. [Laughs]
SB: [Laughs] So this was kind of Haight-Ashbury era?
VS: At the end of Haight-Ashbury, you’re right.
SB: And what was your father doing in D.C. at the time?
VS: He was a judge by then.
SB: So it was kind of, let’s call it, “conservative D.C.,” and you had to jump out into …
VS: Well, I mean, my poor parents. My parents were really, very loving and supportive people, but it was very difficult being a teenager. Later on, when my son was a teenager, they were like, “Haha! Now you see what it’s like.”
SB: And you were an only child?
VS: No, no, I have two younger sisters.
SB: How did that journey from Dartmouth to Yale for your Ph.D.—you mentioned the sort of epiphany moment, when you were in class and you saw a student presenting something on corsets.
VS: That’s right. We had to do a report on two scholarly articles. And my classmate Judy Coffin gave two articles from the feminist journal Signs debating the meaning of the Victorian corset. And that was just like—a lightbulb went off.
SB: Fashion could be intellectual!
VS: Fashion was part of history! And then I went to the library and realized that nobody was really treating it that way. It was either done in this kind of antiquarian, costume history way, like “Let’s count the number of buttons on your doublet,” or it was done in fashion journalism. But no one was really looking at it in terms of cultural history.
SB: I came across, in my research, your 1991 Lingua Franca essay, “The F-Word,” which not only was a hilariously honest take on how unfashionable academics are, but also this notion that fashion was really something that throughout academia as we know it was poo-pooed. It was something that was considered not worthy of further investigation.
VS: Yes, well, with a handful of exceptions, like Italian teachers, the professoriate is probably the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group in America. And I think that’s related to the fact that they look down on fashion as being a subject which was beneath contempt. It was material; it was not intellectual. Fashion was capitalism’s favorite child; it was the enemy of feminism and women; it was a waste of time. It was a, really, not just useless but pernicious thing.
I remember I was at a cocktail party, and this famous Yale professor said, “What are you working your doctoral dissertation on?” And I said, “Fashion.” And he said, “Oh, that’s fascinating! German or Italian?” And I thought, “What is he talking about? There’s no German fashion—does he mean Karl Lagerfeld?” And then, suddenly, I realized, and I said, “No, no, fashion like Paris, not fascism.” He just said, “Oh,” and turned and walked away. I mean, there’s nothing to say to me with that.
SB: I have a paragraph in front of me from this essay, “The F Word,” that I wanted to read, because in the context, just thinking about the fact that this was nearly thirty years ago that you wrote this, I’d be curious to hear your take on it now, and what you feel has changed.
The paragraph is: “The F-word still has the power to reduce many academics to embarrassed or indignant silence. Some of those to whom I spoke while preparing this article requested anonymity or even refused to address the subject; those who did talk explained that many of their colleagues found it ‘shameful to think about fashion.’ One professor explained the ‘denial’ of fashion this way: ‘People say that they don’t care about fashion, but that may be because they aren’t self-conscious enough to envision a personal style. Style is what most academics don’t have.’”
VS: [Laughs] Well.
SB: Now that you have become quite an academic, have been ensconced in this institution at FIT, what’s your take on that?
VS: Well, there’s still a lot of hostility in academia towards fashion, even though, say, fashion exhibitions are blockbusters, often. But you still find a sense that, “Well yes, but that’s entertainment, that’s pandering to the masses, because you want to get in crowds of teenagers to the museum to see them.” I think that, although, of course, now you have some people who are able to have a career and work on fashion—Caroline Weber, for example, the author of Queen of Fashion about Marie Antoinette, really brilliant; she’s at Barnard. But you don’t, still, for the most part, have a field of fashion studies. If you go to Columbia or Yale, you’ll have to search far and wide and go, “Is there a professor in history or art history or American studies who will be your dissertation advisor?” Nobody’s really doing graduate degrees in fashion studies, because it’s so interdisciplinary. Maybe that’s not a problem, but not having a base in academia makes it more difficult, I think, for it to gain a kind of legitimacy. You have to prove yourself in one field, and then move into fashion, ideally after you’ve already gotten tenure.
SB: Do you think that the fact that fashion has become more blurred with art has helped in some way, in terms of its reputation, within academics?
VS: Possibly. But again, I’d be interested in knowing how many art history departments really want to have fashion history be a part of their program. I know the students would love it. When I taught at Columbia once, taking over for Richard Martin, a class in the art history department, I had undergrads, grads, Fulbright scholars, but I don’t think the other profs in the department would ever want that because, again, it would, for the most part, downgrade what they were doing. And although many of us in the fashion world see fashion as being increasingly viewed as an art form, like the way jazz, say, or photography gradually became brought into the cannon of what’s art, along with old master paintings and classical music, I’m not so sure that that many artists—painters, sculptors, art historians, art critics—would be so happy to have fashion brought in as a real art form, as opposed to a decorative art form.
SB: Right. So going back to your studies: You get your Ph.D. in modern European cultural and intellectual history from Yale in 1983. After that, you worked for the Smithsonian as a fellow, and by 1985, your final dissertation from Yale, which was Fashion and Eroticism, became a book. Talk to me a little bit about your thesis. I’m curious—it must have been exciting to you anyway, to be able to turn this sort of thing that, at the time, was considered maybe not necessarily your normal course of academic study into a published book.
VS: The book was quite well received. It got a lot of reviews, although the first review was in Vogue, which trashed it. Of course, I was heartbroken after years of work, and then about a week later, a journalist called me and said, “I saw that great review in Vogue!” and I said, “You’re kidding, she hated the book!” There was a long pause, and the woman said, “It was a full page with a picture.”
SB: She didn’t read Vogue. [Laughs]
SB: She looked at Vogue.
VS: She looked at Vogue. And then I realized she spelled my name right.
The book was really fun to work on. The best part was the chapter on the corset—a big chapter. But I felt that I couldn’t do a whole book on the corset, because it had already been done—I was so naïve. It took me years later to do a book just on the corset [The Corset: A Cultural History, published in 2001]. But I looked at the stereotype of the Victorians as being sexually repressed and said, “Well, no, if you looked at their discourse on clothes, and looked at the clothes themselves, of course they were well aware that women had legs and the clothes were intended to be a more perceived as erotically beautiful.” So, in a way, it seems completely unsurprising. I mean, this was a totally simplistic stereotype of the Victorians, that they thought women didn’t have legs and they covered up the legs of pianos. But it was good to do. I enjoyed working on it.
It got, as I said, some interesting, good reviews. But I didn’t get a job—or rather, I only got adjunct jobs, because, still, no regular history department would hire someone whose specialty was fashion history. So I had a full-time job teaching Western civ at Juilliard, and then adjunct jobs at FIT and at Parsons and Cornell, NYU, Columbia, depending on the year, teaching fashion history. And, at that time, I used to have this little cartoon in my wallet from The New Yorker that showed a bank robber who was carrying away a big bag of money, and he stops to tell a passerby, “I’m only doing this to support my writing.”
VS: I kind of felt like that about most of my jobs: This was to support my writing so I could keep on doing research and writing, doing books like Paris Fashion, and then Women of Fashion and Fetish, and so on.
SB: So Paris Fashion was your second book?
SB: Wow. It’s so interesting to see it come full circle now.
SB: You were first hired as the chief curator of FIT in 1997. How did that come about? And obviously, you’d been adjunct there, teaching a while …
VS: Yes, well, that was interesting, because I was an adjunct there, and they’d said for a long time, “Oh, when there’s a full-time job, we’ll put you in.” And then they put someone else in. I was sort of stomping off thinking, Boy, did I waste ten years! And I happened to run into the director’s secretary, and she’s like, “Hey, Val, how’s it going?” And I’m like, “Well, as a matter of fact, I’m going to quit.” And she ran off and told the director, who immediately contacted me and said, “Oh! Don’t quit, don’t quit, I’d love to have you work at the museum.”
So then I was able to get the job at the museum, which, of course, turned out to be way more fun and interesting, to play with this gigantic closet full of Balenciagas and Diors and Chanels. That opened up a whole new exciting venue. Because I had been teaching about fashion as material culture and analyzing objects, but now working for a museum, I had the opportunity to work with a team of other professionals to put together fashion exhibitions. That was super-exciting. Writing books is very lonely work. I mean, you’re there in the library. It’s really interesting, but you’re by yourself. But putting on an exhibition is like making a film. You’re working with a whole team, and that’s so much more fun.
SB: I love that it was this sort of this radical candor you have that led to you getting this job.
VS: That’s me, always opening my big mouth.
SB: [Laughs] Of course, several years later, in 2003, you’re appointed director of the Museum at FIT. How do you balance the roles that you’ve had as chief curator and director?
VS: Well, I wanted to retain the title of “chief curator” because I wanted to make sure that I would still be able to curate some shows. I mean, some directors do, but I wanted to have that be officially part of my title. But the director part itself turned out to be surprisingly interesting. Because it’s not just being a bureaucrat and running an organization or a division of an even bigger organization; it’s also—you lead in terms of artistic and intellectual leadership, as well as managerial leadership.
It’s been really exciting putting together a better and better team, with skilled and intelligent young colleagues who have really great ideas. Some of the young curatorial and education and media and exhibition people, conservation people, registrarial people—they have so many skills and so many great ideas. They’re pushing the museum to do things that I never would have thought of.
Something like—Colleen Hill did an exhibition she proposed to me about “fairy tale fashion.” And I thought, “What a brilliant idea!” Fairy tales often talk about clothing items—from Little Red Riding Hood to glass slippers—but nobody’s ever looked at that and explored what they mean in fairy tales. They tried to put together, “How could you do a show showing how fashion designers had been inspired by these ideas?” So, for example, back when I did my exhibition on “Red” years ago, I bought this little red riding hood from the eighteenth century. So now Colleen went and bought this amazing fake leather red riding hood by Comme des Garçons. She’s putting them together with other fashion designers who have done red-riding hoods. And suddenly you have a whole vignette. And she finds great fashion photographers who are doing cool, sexy photographs of a fashion model dressed in a red-riding hood surrounded by wolves … and it was really glamorous and scary and exciting. That’s really creative—I never would’ve thought of that.
SB: I think one of the things—just looking at the incredible body of work you have created through this institution—that’s really interesting, is this notion of context, of creating context and parallels where people might not see them. Connecting the dots, in other words. How do you go about doing that when the catalogue is so vast? Fifty thousand garments and accessories are in the collection.
VS: When you’re planning an exhibition—when the other curators propose an exhibition or I start thinking about one—you have to have an idea, and it has to be based on research. So research is at the heart of it. But then you need to be able to tell that story using the objects that we have, or those you think we could reasonably borrow or buy. If I wanted to do a story about the eighteenth century, well, I’d just be screwed, because we don’t have enough eighteenth-century garments; and they’re so fragile that most other museums don’t want to lend them. So I can get a few—like that eighteenth-century fan from Versailles; got a wonderful eighteenth-century corset for the Paris show—but I couldn’t get a hundred objects.
When I think about a show, or when my colleagues do, you have to think about what can you do, what interests you, what’s original, what hasn’t been done before? And very often, it’s by putting together two different fields. So, for example, you could think of “subculture” and “high fashion.” There was a show at the V&A years ago [“Street Style: From Sidewalk to Catwalk” in 1994]—super influential, subculture and style—which looked at how fashion designers had borrowed from hippies and mods and punks and rappers, and sort of copied them. And I thought, Well, that may be true for a lot of them, but the ones who do gothic-style fashion, they’re not really copying the goth kids. And I looked into it further and it turned out that both the goth kids and the designers were really inspired by an enormous corpus of paintings and literature and films, like vampire films, that they were all drawing on for their ideas.
VS: Context! And so that was really cool. And talking to designers like [John] Galliano and Rick Owens, and seeing what they’d gotten from this gothic idea, and what the goth kids had. I mean, I had so many kids in black coming to see me at my office that after a while, they’d just go up to the guard in the lobby, and before they said anything, he’d go, “She’s on the third floor.”
VS: And it was really great because they appreciated that I realized that they were creating something based on having read Byron, and [having watched] Vampyr and looking at these movies. I forced my best friend to watch dozens of horror and vampire movies to get into this. My husband flatly refused. It was bad enough that I was playing all of this kind of music on the car stereo.
Or with the “A Queer History of Fashion,” my colleague Fred Dennis said, “We should do a show about the influence of gays on fashion.” And I thought, That’s brilliant! And then I looked at queer studies and gay history, and realized that so many people had looked at the juxtaposition of, say, LGBTQ people and Hollywood, for example, but no one had really done that LGBTQ history and fashion. You just took it for granted that, “Well, duh, of course all these designers are gay.” So that was really exciting to realize that it wasn’t just, like, a hundred years of fashion, like Foucault would have said, “A hundred years of gay history,” or from Oscar Wilde to now. But in fact it went way back to the eighteenth century, when you already had queer subcultures, both gay and lesbian, crossdressing—gay men in particular being not just stylesetters, but also fashion producers, like man miliners, creators, and salespeople, and members of the fashion industry.
SB: Yeah, when I was reading about the show you’d done on heels, I was fascinated to learn that, actually, heels were men’s shoes.
VS: Yes, that’s right. We think high heels are the ultimate symbol of erotic femininity now that nobody’s wearing corsets, really, anymore—except occasionally to the Met Ball or something. But in fact, of course, Louis the XIVth and men in seventeenth-century France wore high heels. Now, the women’s were narrower, and often higher than, but the men were wearing high heels, too. My ancestor, Sir Richard Steele, said, “Oh, that’s all that women care about now: a man wearing red high heels and an embroidered waistcoat. They don’t care about the tender heart underneath it; they just want all these signs of aristocracy and wealth.”
SB: [Laughs] As director, you’ve also really led some interesting institutional changes, like creating, in 2005, a Fashion & Textile History Gallery.
VS: Yeah, I was tired of people thinking we were just a kunsthalle—that we borrowed all of our clothes. For our big shows, of course we borrow clothes from designers and collectors, but we have more than fifty thousand, so by setting up this fashion history gallery and saying, “This only uses things from our own collection,” it was able to reinforce with the public we have this. And also, it was a great tool for saying to designers, “We’d love to have you on our show about seduction or politics or eco-fashion, but you have to give to us,” because for that particular gallery, it’s only things in our collection.
SB: I think it’s worth noting, too, that from a curatorial perspective, you haven’t done so much the monographic show. Your shows have really been more thematic.
VS: Much more thematic than biographical. And it’s not that I’m opposed to biographical shows—I thought the McQueen show [at the Met] was fabulous, and the Schiaparelli show [also at the Met] was fabulous. But, on the whole, they tend to be hagiographic. And they tend to be, even if you’re friends with the designer, very much under the control of the designer. And I understand that, because even if they’re not paying for the show, it’s their name, it’s their brand image. I’d want to have control if you said, “I want to do a show on Valerie Steele.” I’d want to have control over it, too. But in order to place them in history, I think the curator has to be also independent and say, “I think this is what the designer is about.” And often that involves comparing them to other designers, so it’s not just one designer; it’s putting them in context again.
SB: In terms of your work as a curator and thinking about fashion as presented in cultural institutions—so here I’m talking about the V&A, the Met, what Andrew Bolton is doing, and before him, what Harold Koda did. Even an institution like the MoMA—Paola Antonelli did a fashion exhibition recently. What’s your take on how fashion is being presented at large in these institutions?
VS: Well, fashion’s been collected and exhibited by a wide variety of institutions for a very long time. It’s not actually as new as we tend to think. A lot of people tend to think, “Well, it started with Mrs. Vreeland,” but, in fact, art museums like the Met were collecting; Boston Museum of Fine Arts was collecting; design museums were collecting; the V&A had fashion exhibitions as early as 1910; ethnographic museums had it. There was even a Museum of Textiles in Lyon, which was collecting contemporary fashion in the nineteenth century; to say, “Look, we make the fashionable silks here in Lyon.” So they were acquiring contemporary fashion.
It’s just that, as directors began to discover this really did bring in big and new audiences, then you had everyone from the Guggenheim to the Imperial War Museum doing fashion exhibitions. And they’re often based on interesting research and are really interesting, and take an interesting tack to things. I mean, the Imperial War Museum has done some great fashion exhibitions—about camouflage; about what was happening in London during World War II, comparing it to what was happening in Paris. So you can do great things.
I think that only a few museums have a big staff and a collection of their own of fashion, and that gives them an advantage to those that don’t have a specialized collection and a specialized staff that focuses on fashion history. Because Paola [Antonelli] had to bring in a big braintrust of people. I was one of many, many people—Harold [Koda] was—that were all advising her on what you could do. And even so, I think that the absence of having an expertise on fashion, per se, was a bit problematic, because in the end, the show had things that you thought, “Is it fashion? Really? Or is it another kind of dress, which isn’t really fashionable dress, that might be a more traditional kind of ethnic dress or traditional kind of religious dress that wasn’t really spelled out to the degrees of relationship or difference?” Because there’s not an absolute difference. I think that you can have a sari, which is a fashionable object, as well as something that goes back for centuries in India. But I think you need to provide more context and not just throw it in there and say, “That’s fashion also.”
SB: I think what I liked about the exhibition was that it did challenge notions of what is fashion. I never imagined I’d see a Patagonia fleece on the walls of the MoMA.
VS: That was really great, yes. And often the sportswear things were the most interesting ones, or the underwear ones. She did great, interesting things with underwear in the show. And then she would have something that would be iconic, like a little black dress, and then there were different variants of that; I know we loaned our Givenchy little black dress. So that was interesting.
Any attempt to push the envelope will bump against things that are problematic. The subculture show at the V&A was heavily criticized at the time, but it was paradigm-breaking. And I think the MoMA one was also really interesting in that way, to try and shake up what is fashion. And I’ll be interested to see whether Paola’s allowed to do another fashion show there—they’d already done some on Japanese textiles, but Japanese things have always kind of floated in under the surface as being art from the beginning, from that early Artforum cover article that Ingrid Sischy did, which showed the Issey Miyake rattan bustier on the cover of Artforum in the 1980s, saying, “Oh, Japanese avant-garde fashion is, maybe, art!”
SB: Interesting. Yeah, and coming from a culture, at least then, that felt much further away from Western culture.
As we finish the interview, I want to talk about psychology. In 2012, Suzy Menkes actually dubbed you the “Freud of Fashion,” which I thought was—
VS: I love that, that was so great.
SB: Pretty hilarious.
VS: I had no idea she’d been looking at my stuff all those years.
SB: [Laughs] I guess, in thinking about yourself as the “Freud of Fashion” …
SB: How do you think about psychology in connection to clothes? How do you feel—let’s use today; you walk out on the street—what’s your take, psychologically, on this moment in clothing?
VS: Well, I think that there’s an awful lot of pop psychologizing going on, which is not very useful. I know that there are a lot of problems with Freud—you know, penis envy and all kinds of other problems. Nevertheless, if I were to try and do an exhibition on psychology and fashion—and I’ve been thinking about this more and more, actually, since I gave a talk at the London College of Fashion about Freud and fashion. But I think I would like to try and do it on psychoanalysis and fashion. I just need to try and figure out how you’d handle it. Because psychology has gone in so many directions now. An awful lot of what’s under the category of psychology is: you ask several hundred college students what they think about something, and I don’t think that really tells you a whole hell of a lot about how we actually think about fashion. But they’re easy subjects to get—and you can pay them, or get them to do that as an internship.
I would like to try and explore, for example, things like sexual symbolism in dress. I remember I was once hired to give a talk to a bunch of engineers and designers. I gave a talk, talking about high heels and corsets and sexual symbolism and phallic symbols. At the end, this engineer came up rather aggressively, and he said, “Well, we call the kind of phone that opens and closes a ‘clamshell,’ and we call the kind that’s stiff a ‘candybar.’ From what you say, I gather there’s something sexual about that.” And I’m like “Clamshell? Candybar? No shit, Sherlock, there sure is something sexual about that!” [Laughs]
VS: So it’ll be interesting to try and look into things like that, look into what unconscious desires clothes can fulfill for us. You know, why do we talk about retail research? We have a donor who’s a psychiatrist who gives us beautiful high-fashion clothes with the tags still on. She’s obviously heavily involved in retail research; she doesn’t even wear the stuff, and she passes them on. I’d be interested in knowing more about, you know, how do we perceive this relationship between the body and clothes, and the nakedness of the body and clothing as a second skin? Why is it that, in some cultures, women are completely covered from head to toe, and in others, men and women just wear a kind of a [small covering], whether a penis sheath or a little napkin? And how, exactly, does clothing function as a second skin? What’s the eroticism of tactile aspects of clothing? That’s something that hardly anybody has thought about. And yet there have only been a handful of books written about psychology and dress. I’m not sure how I’d handle it as a book or a show, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in trying to explore.
SB: I think, too, about social movements or social upheaval, whether it’s something like Me Too or say we head into the next recession—how is that going to impact the clothes we wear, how we dress, how we present ourselves?
VS: Yes, well, if you look back, you’ll remember that after 9/11, there was a lot of pop psychologizing about how fashion was this superficial thing, was no longer going to be regarded as important, and people would no longer wear high heels because they’d need sneakers to run away from the next catastrophe, and all this kind of angst went on for about six months, and then people dropped it.
Often people react to certain things with short-term changes and discussions, which then get either abandoned or swept under the rug again. You saw that in Paris, after the defeat by the Prussians and the Commune—suddenly everyone was attacking the fashion industry as being all of these harlots wearing outrageous clothes. But then, after the Third Republic started again and things calmed down, the couture houses reopened and it was back to the same kind of fashion, really.
SB: It’s so interesting that you mentioned 9/11 because I actually interviewed, once, a survivor who had come out of the second tower, and this striking image he told me of escaping the building before it fell: The only thing he remembers still in his mind were high heels—
VS: Kicked off.
SB: —in the stairwell. And coffee cups. People had thrown their coffee and kicked off their high heels.
VS: Yeah, exactly. Well, clothes in general, but shoes in particular are such a stand-in for the person that wore them. You have that at the Holocaust Museum, too, the mountain of shoes. I think that probably is one of the reasons why we respond so viscerally to shoes. We talk about, “Walk a mile in my shoes …”; it’s like, “Be me. Be me.” It’s more than a question of being practical or anything; it’s a question of “Who am I as a person?”
SB: And empathy.
VS: And empathy.
SB: What do you think is that link between empathy and fashion?
VS: Well, fashion is the link between you as the individual and others in your society. In that way, like your skin, it’s that interface between you and the environment around you. So, in that way, it really is your second skin, and it’s the way you present yourself to others. I mean, there’s that Mark Twain joke, where he goes, “Clothes are really important. Naked people have very little influence on history.” Clothes are the way we present ourselves to other people. And they’ll read us, and sometimes they’ll read us in ways that we think are wrong or unfair. They’ll think we’re a criminal if we’re young and black and wearing a hoodie; they’ll think we’re asking for it if we’re young and female and wearing a miniskirt. There are all kinds of ways that people will read our clothes in ways that we don’t like, but the point is that we are reading each other constantly through clothes.
SB: I always find it fascinating when you see pictures or you’re at an event, and, say, two women are wearing the same dress—how they might respond to each other in that moment of seeing somebody else wearing the exact same thing.
VS: Yes, yes. Well, on the other hand, it’s the most comfortable default position for men, that you want to be wearing what other people are wearing, and to stand out is to be scary.
SB: Yeah, interesting.
To close, I think it makes sense to talk about time. You being a fashion historian, clearly you have a very distinctive perspective on time in relationship to fashion. I guess I have a two-part question. One is, thinking about the current cycle we’re in of fashion, what role is time playing? There’s got to be a point in this circle that it speeds up too fast and fashion must sort of flip black or switch back somehow. That will be the first question: What’s your take on time in relationship to the current fashion cycle?
VS: Time does seem to be out of joint now, increasingly, with relation to the fashion cycle. Already, in the late seventeenth century, in Paris and Versailles—that nexus, the two-headed fashion capital—you had spring fashions and autumn fashions. You already had that basic cycle. But it speeded up so much now, with people expecting new fashion drops every two or three weeks and designers really having to work round the clock, and people buying throughout the year, and then throwing clothes out after wearing it, at most, ten times … that throws the whole question of fashion being about “of-the-moment” in a really confused way. Of what moment? This week? How can it say anything about this week?
I think part of [fashion’s] appeal has always been that it seems to renew us. Part of retail therapy is that you’re buying a new pair of shoes or a new dress, and you feel like a new person. And part of that, I think, has to do with … it’s artificial. And human beings and natural things go through time in one direction. You are born, you grow older, and you die. And fashion is like a kind of vampire; it’s always young and reappearing. It’s reborn all the time. So fashion, in a way, allows you the illusion of escaping from time’s arrow and going into something else, which is part of its appeal. I think it was Jean Cocteau who said, “We must forgive fashion everything because it dies so young.” Or [Coco] Chanel saying that “fashion must die, and die quickly so that the business can live.”
Fashion’s relationship with time has always been very conflicted and very problematic, but this hyper-speeding up and the fact that designers, because they’re so rushed, they don’t have time to think about what they want to be doing; they’re sort of desperately having their team grab influences off the internet. They’re recycling images from past decades, from other cultures. The amount of appropriation going on, cultural and otherwise, is just legion. And they’re being called out on it because, immediately, people will see what they stole.
SB: Diet Prada.
VS: Exactly, Diet Prada is there to point out to you that you stole that. Whereas, before, that might go unnoticed.
SB: The second question I wanted to ask kind of connects to your own personal experience of time. It’s been almost forty years since you wrote your doctoral thesis. How have you seen fashion evolve in terms of our understanding of the word? So, over this period of time, how have you seen the word “fashion” evolve?
VS: I think that people have become much more cognizant of the fact that fashion is not a frivolous topic. I think academics may still resist this, but I think people in general realize that fashion is a multibillion dollar industry—maybe an evil industry, problematic, nonsustainable—but that it’s a big industry. I think people are also increasingly aware that it’s not just something you conform to, but something that you use to express yourself. It was the gay movement, really, more than the women’s movement that said, “Hey, fashion is something that you can express yourself and communicate with,” whereas women were still, at that point, talking about being oppressed by fashion. And I think that people are more accepting of the idea that, yes, it has a cultural and social role in a variety of ways—things which are good, bad, ugly, interesting—but especially when it comes to their own clothes, people are more willing to admit that they themselves have a role in choosing their clothes. There are [now] fewer people who are of the type that will say, “I know nothing about fashion. I have nothing to do with fashion.” I used to say to those people, “Really? Does your mom choose your clothes?”
VS: Because, obviously, they have something to do with fashion. They’re choosing clothes. And they’re not wearing the clothes of a hundred years ago, either.
Fashion does evolve, and we choose our place in it. And at certain points in our lives, like adolescence, clothes are really important for us. But even, if you have children, you realize that clothes are really important. For children, clothes are really a big statement of who they are. Even if it’s a three-year-old girl saying, “No, no, I want to wear the pink dress during a snowstorm because I’m a girl!” And the parents are going, “What did I do wrong?”
SB: Now it’s little boys saying that.
VS: Believe me, my little boy neighbors were dressing up, and I go, “Is that Barbie?” And they go, “No, Frozen! This is a girl from Frozen.” [Laughs]
VS: I was so clueless. I wasn’t even recognizing which princess they were.
SB: Yeah, well, I think the internet has really opened up this sort of ability to understand and educate ourselves on fashion, whether that’s how we consume and buy, or just simply access to information.
VS: And just the accessing of imagery. There’s so many fashion images. We’re inundated with them from around the world. I do think people are much more visually aware of fashion, much more self-consciously aware that fashion is something significant in the world. It’s no longer seen so much as being this trivial, “feminine” thing. Especially younger men in particular recognize that.
SB: Well, it makes sense in this context, then, that Paris remains this powerhouse, and that Paris, where we started this interview, is probably stronger than it’s ever been in terms of fashion.
VS: And, of course, they’re even now starting to try and claw back as a dominance, or at least equality, in men’s fashion, which they lost by the end of the eighteenth century. They lost it to London, which was doing the modern kind of menswear. And later to Italy, and to America and New York. I mean, all these sneakers on the runway, and the casual-looking cashmere, expensive sweatpants and hoodies—this all comes out of New York sportswear, and it’s reappearing at vastly inflated prices on the runways of Paris. But that’s being seen as now the world’s best menswear perhaps will also be seen in Paris. That would be a big, historic change, because they lost that so many centuries ago—it was just women’s fashion.
SB: I mean, Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton is very telling.
VS: Virgil Abloh is very telling, and so is Kim Jones at Dior Hommes.
SB: Valerie, this was great, thanks so much.
VS: Thank you.
This interview—which concludes Season 1 of Time Sensitive—was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on July 31, 2019. The transcript has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity. Special thanks to our spring and summer interns Lynn Kim, Michelle Erdenesanaa, and Gabriella Sanchez-Corea.