A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Kristen Stewart, the Nathalie L. Klaus Curator of Costumes and Textiles at the Valentine museum. Originally from Richmond, Kristen has worked with several great costume collections including the MET Costume Institute before moving back to take the position at the Valentine last fall. Kristen was kind enough to take me on a personal tour of the current Classical Allure: Richmond Style show, and to answer some of my questions.
Classical Allure is a small but engaging collection of items in an intimate setting that perfectly suits an exhibit showcasing fashion about and belonging to native Richmonders. The focus of the collection are the four goddesses representing Virginia on the state seal, Virtus (virtue / valor), Ceres (agriculture / fertility); Libertas (liberty) and Aeternitas (eternity). Through garments, sculpture, illustrations, needlepoint and more, the show tells a story about the way classical motifs were used to reflect ideals like beauty and freedom – at times when freedom did not extend to everyone, as during the Civil War or the Civil Rights era. How women were portrayed as warriors and amazons, icons representing victory while also being objectified or denied the same rights as men. Throughout the exhibit, one is reminded of how fashion exists at the intersection of art, design, culture and even politics, a marker of social and personal identity that makes viewing it in a museum special and yet more accessible than a painting or sculpture.
And now a little about Kristen…
Q: You worked in the fashion industry as a designer and illustrator before transitioning to the academic/archives/museum path. Why the change?
A: Kristen started out studying sociology as an undergraduate, but at the time it wasnt quite right. She took a fashion history class at VCU as an extracurricular thing and LOVED it. She ended up getting a B.F.A. in Fashion Design from VCU, but always had an interest in the cultural/social aspects of fashion, so she got her M.A. from FIT in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory and Museum Practice. (Check her out on LinkedIn)
Q: What is the strength of the costume/textiles collection at the Valentine?
A: It’s broad scope and the way it reflects the history of Richmond, from Court attire worn by Richmonders attending court events in varying countries (Lady Astor’s coronation robes for example) to T-shirts representing ephemera sold/given away at Richmond events and sports games.
Q: How did you decide on the classical theme for the show?
A: Classical Allure was inspired by an exhibition at the MET called Goddess: The Classical Mode, curated by Harold Koda that traced the way that classical themes have influenced fashion from Greek and Roman times to today. Kristen, new to the Valentine last fall and trying to familiarize herself with the collection knew that it had to include items that reflected that influence, and that the classical theme is also resonant in the architecture, decorative art and ideals espoused by the founders of Virginia. She was able to pull aspects of all of this in to create the context for the show.
Q: What is your research process like?
A: When preparing for a show, Kristen refers to a variety of resources including exhibition catalogs to see what other museums are doing, JSTOR and primary sources like American Periodicals …and of course, she turns first and last to the rich collection of costume and textiles at the Valentine.
Q: Do you have a favorite period/style/designer?
A: Kristen likes transitional periods, those times in fashion where trends are taking shape and styles are experimental and not yet widely adopted. She does have a soft spot for designer Paul Poiret because his work is an example of this – weird, but in a good way!
Q: Any sneak peek into what you might do at the Valentine next?
A: The next costume show will focus on menswear, and how it reflects changing ideals of masculinity. Look out for it next Spring!
* Garments like this helped American designers triumph over the French in The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in 1972, which was also notable for featuring African American models and the work of African-American fashion designer Stephen Burrowes. The coral-colored dress in the Libertas photo above is by Burrowes.
+ The center dress in the Aeternitas photo above is an iconic Delphos gown by Fortuny, made of finely pleated silk.