Valerie Steele on Curating Fashion
The author and fashion scholar reveals her favourite style icons and why she’s obsessed with shoes.
As the director and chief curator of the museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Valerie Steele, Ph.D., may have the most intriguing job in the fashion world. She’s a fashion scholar who makes her living studying what we wear and how we wear it. When she’s not curating major exhibitions at FIT, she’s writing about fashion. Her latest book is Akris, a profile of the fashion house and a study of designer Albert Kriemler and the Swiss legacy behind the brand. She’s also written about style icons Daphne Guinness and Isabel Toledo. Here, Four Seasons Magazine editor Susan Weissman talks to Steele about her scholarly pursuit of fashion and her own sartorial influences.
Where did your interest in fashion come from?
I had just started graduate school at Yale to get a doctorate in modern European cultural and intellectual history and we were assigned to read two articles from a scholarly journal. My classmate reported on two articles in Signs, which is a journal of feminist studies, and they were both on the Victorian corset—one was saying that it was oppressive to women and the other was saying that it was liberating. A light bulb went on and I realised, “Oh, fashion is part of culture. I could write about fashion history.” And that basically changed my whole life.
Can you tell us about your work with FIT?
I started here in 1997 as chief curator and later became director of FIT’s museum. We are a specialised fashion museum on the campus of the Fashion Institute of Technology. We’ve got a permanent collection of more than 50,000 garments and accessories from the 18th century to the present. We provide a kind of context for 200 to 250 years of fashion history so that the public and the students can see 18th- and 19th-century dress, as well as the things we have in the special exhibits.
Culturally, is it diverse or primarily Western-focused?
I did a show in the late ’90s called “China Chic: East Meets West,” and two years ago, I did a big show called “Japan Fashion Now.” We’ve done shows in the fashion history gallery on exoticism, where we looked at world fashions and had designers from Africa, Latin America and so on. And, in fashion history, we have an odd one right now on “Fashion Designers A–Z,” which is looking at influential 20th- and 21st-century designers who are represented in our collection. It covers everyone from Azzedine Alaïa to Zoran, Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior.