Valerie Steele, former high school dropout, Yale doctorate holder, museum curator and author, is a rarity. Having entered fashion by way of corsets (the study thereof), she is like any true historian in that she delves deep within her chosen subject and returns with a vast pool of knowledge only to give it meaning. Yet she places particular emphasis on all of fashion’s unexplored cultural implications. In New York, there’s no better example of an all-inquisitive breed. As she sits at a table covered with books from inside her office above The Museum at FIT, inquiring eyes staring back, it’s like being drawn back to induction day in college. When she speaks she’s so full of conviction and purpose, it’s intimidating. The interview is over within 30 minutes. Despite the long list of probing questions, Steele exudes a thoroughness that could hit you from a distance.
“Despite the wealth of bloggers and Instagram, etc., the average person is not in the position of being a gatekeeper, let alone a dictator.”
SOPHIA GONZALEZ: As a leading fashion academic, you’ve both researched and experienced changes in fashion. From trends to the industry itself, which recent changes would you say are the most noteworthy?
VALERIE STEELE: Fashion is intrinsically about change and time. That said, the fashion system in recent years has become more globalized with big trends, big fashion companies like LVMH and Kering, as well as production going off-shore primarily to Asia. You also have the technological revolution. It used to take months before a fashion would move from Paris to New York and then months more before it would travel to another part of the world. Now you have copies being made within hours of their being shown in Paris, and in fact, [these] reach the stores before designers see their own products reach the stores. In addition, more and more fashion weeks are springing up all over the world. All of this has meant that the fashion world seems to be moving much more rapidly.
And if you’re young and starting out…
It’s become more complicated. Back in the 1920’s, you could start your own fashion couture house on the basis of having half a dozen clients. You need millions and millions of dollars in backing to start one now.
Do you think there’s been a negative impact to quality with the fashion cycle speeding up?
I don’t think you can say there’s been a change in the quality of the work. That would be too simplistic. But I do think there’s a lot of pressure on designers. The more successful they become, there might be added pressure to produce multiple collections.
In a way, this accelerated fashion cycle could explain why the design aspect doesn’t change so radically.
Fashion design never changes radically. If you had too great of a sudden change, it would be accepted by no one. And it might not be understood. But one significant shift you may have seen is the designer as a creative agent, and the brand as a marketing phenomenon.
That’s definitely true. Going back to the topic of technology, and when we look at social media as a proponent of personal style bloggers, do you think people dictate fashion to brands? Or is it the designer?
Despite the wealth of bloggers and Instagram, etc., the average person is not in the position of being a gatekeeper, let alone a dictator.
So would you say that the public’s relationship to fashion hasn’t changed with time?
No, it changes. Fashion is not just a psychological or socio-psychological situation. It’s economic; it’s psychological; it’s social; it’s aesthetic. It’s not just a production of clothes—it’s a production of ideas about clothes and images about clothes. Designers are trying to pick up on this so they can move their designs forward and people will respond whether or not it resonates with them and their world.
Has the rise in popularity of fashion exhibitions, such as the Alexander McQueen exhibit in 2011 or the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit most recently in Paris, helped your efforts?
It [Popularity] has been growing since the 1970’s, but increasingly, especially since 2000. More and more museums are doing shows like this because they know the public will respond and come in huge numbers.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because people feel they can understand and appreciate fashion more easily than art.
I remember my first time at the museum here. I was studying fashion design in high school.
Oh, you were one of those kids.
“There was a feeling among fashion people that if you were serious about fashion, it was boring and it was a drag. It was supposed to be, you know, fun.”
I was one of those [laughs]. And it was 2000, maybe, and the exhibit was about corsets. For my first time going to a fashion museum, I think it was one of the best exhibits I could have seen.
Oh yes. I spent 20 years studying corsets. That’s how I got into the history of fashion—through corsets. My friend and I were assigned to look at two articles from a scholarly journal [whilst completing a PhD at Yale] and she had read this scholarly journal, a feminist journal called Signs, which had articles arguing about the meaning of the Victorian corset: “Was it oppressive to women or was it liberating?”
I think of all the books you’ve written—from those about counter-culture fashion to fetish clothing to style icons like Daphne Guinness. Which experiences were some of your favourite?
Whatever project you’re working on is captivating. I have to say, I wrote Paris Fashion in large part because Paris is the capital of fashion and because it’s great to do research in Paris. At the moment, I’m doing a new edition of the Paris Fashion book so that gives me an excuse to make multiple trips to Paris. And I’m working on a show next year with the Palais Galliera, which is one of the two fashion museums in Paris, to bring the clothes worn by the Comtesse Greffulhe to New York—to the museum at FIT.
How did that come about?
The director there, Olivier Saillard, told me he was working on this project a few years ago while we were sitting waiting for the Dior Couture show to open. We were talking and I said, “Oh my God, that sounds fabulous. Can I get involved in that in any way? I’d love to do something for your catalogue or bring it to New York.” So we’re bringing that here and I also have an essay in the catalogue.
“Back in the 1920’s, you could start your own fashion couture house on the basis of having half a dozen clients. You need millions and millions of dollars in backing to start one now.”
What do you think about students who would like to follow your career route?
Well, there are a select number of museums. [But] you can certainly do it. People like Judith Clark (Professor of Fashion and Museology at London College of Fashion) didn’t wait to be hired by museums. She started her own autonomous gallery.
Some might argue that fashion is not considered an intellectual pursuit, that it’s only for pleasure.
In the past, there was a lot of suspicion on the part of academics that fashion was for silly people. Conversely, there was a feeling among fashion people that if you were serious about fashion, it was boring and it was a drag. It was supposed to be, you know, fun.
VS: Academics are more willing to accept that fashion is a valid topic to study. Fashion people are now more interested in hearing what intellectuals have to say. I think [it’s] become more relaxed.
Words by Sophia Gonzalez
Photography by Casey Brooks for 1 Granary