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Valerie Steele

Valerie Steele


Valerie Steele, Ph.D has been described as one of the fashion industry’s most influential women. As Director and Chief Curator of the Museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Steele has been instrumental in creating the modern field of fashion studies as well and raising public awareness of the cultural and social significance.

Originally aired Nov. 2013

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][mk_toggle style=”simple” title=”Transcript”]Sandi:                       Welcome to another edition of The 51%, Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. Valerie Steele has been described as one of the fashion industries most influential women; and why not? She’s been instrumental in creating the modern field of fashion studies as well as raising public awareness of the cultural and social significance of fashion. Steele joined New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology as an adjunct professor in 1985. In 1997, she was named the museums Chief Curator and became director in 2003. She has organized more than twenty exhibitions including: The Corset: Fashioning the Body, Gothic: Dark Glamour, and the most recent; a Queer History of Fashion: From the closet to the Catwalk- a multi-authored book published by Yale University Press and edited by Valerie; a Company Z exhibition. Speaking of books, Valerie has written or co-written more than a dozen, her first: Fashion and Eroticism, was published in 1985. Fashion Designers A-Z was released in 2012. She’s also the editor and chief of the three volume encyclopedia of clothing and fashion. Steele has been profiled in print and on television, appearing on the PBS special The Way We Wear and the Oprah Winfrey Show. Growing up, Valerie said she wanted to be an actress and while that involved dressing up, she wasn’t sure it could be considered fashion. She went to high school, didn’t stay; bored, she dropped out. Steele did get her GED and wound up at Yale, receiving a Doctorate in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History. It seems corsets were the catalyst that propelled Valerie to combine scholarly fashion history and cultural history and the rest is history.

                                 I am so excited to have you here today with me Valerie.

Valerie:                    Thank you so much.  

Sandi:                       I want to begin by saying I’m guessing it’s not every day that a school like Yale accepts a high school dropout. Would you talk about that part of your life?

Valerie:                    Yes. It’s funny, many years later someone said to a friend of mine, do you know whatever happened to that girl Valerie? And she said, yes, she’s getting a PhD at Yale. The person laughed and said, no seriously, have any idea what happened to her?

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Valerie:                    [Laughing]

Sandi:                       So, what did happen? First of all, where did you grow up?

Valerie:                    I grew up everywhere from D.C. to Boston.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                    I ran away when I was fifteen, so I lived out in a commune in San Francisco and then I came back East and eventually ended up going to college. I was only, I only applied to Ivy League schools and the only one I got into was Dartmouth, which I hadn’t seen before I got there. So, I hitchhiked up to go to the first week of classes and thought oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?

Sandi:                       Because it was so nowhere?

Valerie:                    Well, it was so nowhere. It’s like Mississippi of the North.

Sandi:                       [Laughing] I never heard of [00:03:01]

Valerie:                    But also it was so right wing and full of all these fraternity boys, but it was okay.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                    Within a few days I’d met everybody who was

Sandi:                       Worth meeting?

Valerie:                    Yes. Black, gay, foreign, female; everyone who was interesting.

Sandi:                       And then, from there, you applied to Yale?

Valerie:                    Yes.

Sandi:                       For your graduate studies?

Valerie:                    Right.

Sandi:                       You left home at fifteen. Why?

Valerie:                    I was bored, I was frustrated, I wasn’t getting along with my mother.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                    I remember I went out to this office of an underground newspaper in San Francisco when I got off the plane. They’d been printing articles, prisoners escape, soldiers go AWOL, and so I said well I’m here and they’re like ahh, get out of here, you’ll get us in trouble.

Sandi:                       For sure.

Valerie:                    I was like, some revolutionaries you are.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Valerie:                    Eventually they put me in touch a women’s commune, it was a kind of gay and feminist commune and so they let me stay there and then I got fake id and a job and so on and so forth.

Sandi:                       And this was in the 70s, I assume, right?

Valerie:                    Yes.

Sandi:                       I guess that that’s rather unusual; your background is really, I guess formed you as you are who you are because of who you’ve been.

Valerie:                    I suppose that, I mean, that has to be true. Right?

Sandi:                       That you’re a pretty ballsy broad.

Valerie:                    [Laughing]

Sandi:                       That’s how you would assess yourself, right?

Valerie:                    Well, certainly as a teenager I was fairly fearless.

Sandi:                       Well, that’s a good way to be. So, I would like to move into Yale now and I want you to explain how corsets turned your life around, especially from somebody who probably didn’t wear a bra back then.

Valerie:                    Right. I did not wear a bra back then. I remember my mother pleading with me when I went to the doctor, saying he’s an old man. I thought, is he going to have a heart attack if I’m not wearing a bra?

Sandi;                       [Laughing] Or this could be the best day of his life.

Valerie:                    So, I went to Yale to study cultural and intellectual history and I had no idea that it would be fashion history. I really didn’t know. I thought it would be maybe something about the French Revolution. Then, we had an assignment the first term to give a presentation about two scholarly articles we’d read. I honestly don’t remember which ones I read, but I was, my life was changed because my classmate Judy gave a presentation on two articles from the feminist journal Signs. One a standard feminist analysis of the Victorian corset as oppressive to women and deeply unhealthy.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                    And the other one a kind of revisionist account that said no, it was sexually liberating. It was just as though a light bulb went on and I realized fashion’s a part of culture. I can do fashion history; which my professors thought was a seriously bad idea.

Sandi:                       Frivolous?

Valerie:                    Frivolous in part because the topic seemed to them completely frivolous and also, if you want to give a kinder spin to it, they probably thought I’d never get a job because no history department would hire someone specializing in that.

Sandi:                       Which is true.

Valerie:                    In corsets.

Sandi:                       Uh Huh. Uh Huh. But you forged ahead anyway.

Valerie:                    I was convinced that fashion was a perfectly valid field of study.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                    At that point, there were basically two kinds of writing on fashion; there was journalism and there was a kind of antiquarian costume studies, but fashion hadn’t really been integrated into cultural or social history. So, I went ahead and did that, being a grad student I thought oh, corsets have been scooped. Someone else is doing it, so it’s too late; so I worked more generally on the erotic aspects of Victorian fashion with a big chapter on the corset. I could not get a job at any normal history department, not a tenure track job, so I got a million adjunct jobs including one at FIT, but I also taught fashion history as an adjunct at Cornell, NYU, Parsons, even Columbia one year, but no full time job.

Sandi:                       Uh Huh

Valerie:                     So I just kept on researching and writing my books and then I started my magazine, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture. I had the good luck then, to be offered a job at the museum at FIT which was fantastic, because then I got a whole new area to play with in terms of working with colleagues on putting on fashion history exhibitions.

Sandi:                       Wait a second. I want to go back to when you said you started your magazine. Who were you that you could start a magazine?

Valerie:                     I was somebody who had, at that point, published several books on fashion history.

Sandi:                       Okay.

Valerie:                     So, I did Fashion and Eroticism, I did Paris Fashion, I did women of fashion, etc. I had a fellowship at the Smithsonian, so I was publishing.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     I was at a conference and Kathryn Earl, who at that point was the publisher of Burg – which was a small English company, asked me to be on the advisory board for her list of books about fashion.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     I said, well I’m perfectly willing to do that, but you’re a teeny little publisher and there are very few really good scholarly books on fashion, so you’re going to lose out to bigger publishers like Yale, for a lot of them. I said, what you really need to do is start a scholarly journal on fashion studies because they’re going to be a lot of people who have the experience that I did. They’ll write an essay and other journals won’t be interested in it because it will be about fashion.

Sandi:                       So, it was very fashion historically centric, or no?

Valerie:                     Well, it was not only the history of fashion, it was more generally fashion studies that was really interdisciplinary and international. People wrote, who were experts in art history, anthropology, Chinese history. We had essays on things from high fashion models today to foot binding in ancient China, to tattooing and piercing to dandies in the nineteenth century; right across the board. It is still in existence, Fashion Theory, it’s actually been expanded. That was kind of one of my platforms. I used to keep with me a little cartoon from the New Yorker that showed a bank robber escaping with a pile of cash and he turns to a passerby and says “I’m only doing this to support my writing.”

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Valerie:                     I kind of felt like that

Sandi:                       The same way?

Valerie:                     Because I was doing all of these teaching jobs and some of them were fun but others had nothing to do with fashion. I taught Plato to Nato at Julliard for ten years.

Sandi:                       Oh. That’s interesting, or weird.

Valerie:                     Yeah. It was weird. But, I kept writing the books and I kept doing the magazine and at FIT, anyway, I was teaching in what was then the museum studies department, specializing in costume and textile history. So, then I got a job part time as coordinator of the museum. Coordinator of Special Projects and within a few months that turned into Chief Curator.

Sandi:                       So, would you say that back then, you landed your dream job beaus3e you were able to combine all these elements that you loved – history, current fashion, teaching?

Valerie:                     It seemed very much like it was the ideal job. I remember telling an interviewer, I can’t believe I’m getting paid to play with Balenciaga(s).

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Valerie:                     That was really great.

Sandi:                       Uh Huh

Valerie:                     To be there in the collection and be able to collaborate with really talented people, putting together exhibitions, which is very different from writing an article or a book, but it’s a very immediate way that you can present fashion to an audience.

Sandi:                       Well, it’s also being right there as opposed to teaching this at Columbia or Cornell, I mean, did you have students who were interested?

Valerie:                     Oh, the students for the fashion classes were hugely interested.

Sandi:                       Yeah?

Valerie:                     Sure.

Sandi:                       You had a waiting list, huh?

Valerie:                     Absolutely.

Sandi:                       Great.

Valerie:                     People, it was more the professors who didn’t think it was a serious topic.

Sandi:                       And kind of were dismissive?

Valerie:                     But the students definitely wanted it. In fact, a younger colleague of mine was a grad student in the late 90s at Columbia and she wanted to write her doctoral dissertation on fashion and her professors, and that was in sociology – which was founding discipline for fashion studies.

Sandi:                       Sure. Sure.

Valerie:                     They said no, no that’s not serious. As it happened, the first issue of Fashion Theory had just come out and she brought it in and slammed it down on the desk and said, look there’s a scholarly journal; that proves it’s a valid topic.

Sandi:                       So, they had to eat their words?

Valerie:                     Yes. They let her do it.

Sandi:                       You said something, and I wanted to pick up on it. How do you say Victorian age and eroticism in terms of fashion?

Valerie:                     Well, there

Sandi:                       You think of it being so repressive even though there was décolletage, but more than that…

Valerie:                     Well, the myth that the Victorians were terrified of sexuality and the body is greatly over simplified.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     The Victorians were obsessed with propriety and respectability and erotic expression in dress was very much conditioned by what’s appropriate. So, you could have a plunging neckline at a ball.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     When you were in private, surrounded by people of your own class but if you wore that dress on the street, people would throw mud at you and insults because it was in public.

Sandi:                       Sure. Harlot.

Valerie:                     It’s just like, we may be very sexually liberated and relaxed about our bodies or not.

Sandi:                       [Laughing] Right.

Valerie:                     But, we’ll wear a bikini to the beach, but we certainly won’t wear it to the office. Well, magnify that to ten. The Victorians were super conscious of who you were, where you were, what you could or couldn’t wear.

Sandi:                       Did it matter what you looked like in the Victorian age? I mean, were they as obsessed as we are about body image?

Valerie:                     Yes. This is something which is continued. It’s part of, I think women’s…

Sandi:                       The cross to bear, as far as I’m concerned.

Valerie:                     Yes. Cross to bear, a dependent position that’s so much of their future had to rely on how attractive they were, who would marry them, etc. So, I remember, but that’s continuing today to considerable extent. I remember, my students used to ask, how was it or why was it that the corset was finally abandoned after four hundred years and I used to say; you know, it really wasn’t abandoned so much as it was internalized as diet and exercise and plastic surgery.

Sandi:                       Ah ha. Ah ha.

Valerie:                     The end goal was the same, to have an attractive, youthful figure, but the corset involved pushing your fat around or padding you out, whereas now you’re dependent, the clothes show more of your body and so you have to do something more immediately with the body itself. For example, My Secret Life – which was an erotic autobiography – the author says at one point, no man will stay long with a woman whose skinny buttocks he can hold in the palm of one hand.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Valerie:                     You know, you wanted someone with va va va voom!

Sandi:                       Not a problem for me!

Valerie:                     A big, big bottom.

Sandi:                       Right.

Valerie:                     With a voluptuous bosom.

Sandi:                       Right.

Valerie:                     But, at the same time you wanted a small waist, small hands and feet.

Sandi:                       Sure.

Valerie:                     So, interesting enough, what anthropologists call a waist/hip differential remains essentially the same for Victorians, for Twiggy, for Marilyn Monroe.

Sandi:                       That your waist should be ten inches smaller than your hips.

Valerie:                     No.

Sandi:                       No? What?

Valerie:                     Waist/ hip differential.

Sandi:                       What does that mean?

Valerie:                     It means that the width of your waist should be about .7 of the width of our hips. So, 7/10ths of the size of it.

Sandi:                       Okay.

Valerie:                     So, do the math.

Sandi:                       I can’t.

Valerie:                     I can’t, but you can figure it out and what it amounts to is, even Twiggy with small breasts, or Marilyn Monroe with a more voluptuous figure, etc.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     They all had essentially the same waist/hip differential.

Sandi:                       I see.

Valerie:                     So, there was that curve out and it may be hard wired into us because our ancestors would have died out if they’d preferred more like a .9 waist/hip differential.

Sandi:                       You were straighter.

Valerie:                     Straight up and down.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     Because you would be prepubescent or post- menopausal or beginning to be pregnant.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     So the more nubile, young, but fertile waist/hip differential is the one that people prefer.

Sandi:                       Now, I just thought of this when you said about being pregnant, not that I’m obsessed with the Victorian era, but what did women do when they were pregnant? Did they dump the corset?

Valerie:                     They switched to pregnancy corsets which expanded. You would unlace it more and more. Although obviously if you had to hide it for example, if you were a servant who’d be fired if she were found to be pregnant; then you would keep tight lacing it to try and repress the swelling in your abdomen.

Sandi:                       Ah Ha

Valerie:                     Which probably was extremely bad for both mother and fetus.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     But for most women, you would wear something that would unlace further and further and further. It was really more in the way of, right up until the 1960s, many people wore kind of pregnancy girdles.

Sandi:                       Girdles. Mm Hmm. When you taught at schools as an adjunct, did you have a lot of males in your classes? Did you focus on male fashion too?

Valerie:                     Most fashion classes are predominantly women.

Sandi:                       Right.

Valerie:                     But sure, we had some men in them and I think it’s important to look at men’s and women’s fashion together.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     If you just look at women’s fashion in isolation you can be misled about certain things.

Sandi:                       So, make the comparison.

Valerie:                     Corsets entered into the vocabulary of women in about 1500.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     At that point, both men and women of the elite wore clothing that was very rigidly structured; the idea was that you’d be upright and supported and stiff.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     If you look at portraits of men as well as women, there’s this very much armored, stiff

Sandi:                       Right

Valerie:                     Even in the 19th Century, some men wore corsets; particularly things like Calvary officers because it was thought to give you a trim military figure plus back support for being on horseback.

Sandi:                       Okay.

Valerie:                     In fact, if you go to a weight lifting room in the gym today you will still see men wearing what are essentially corsets. Those big leather belts which support your back.

Sandi:                       Sure.

Valerie:                     The problem was that women’s bodies were thought of being so much weaker than men that they needed to have all the support all the time.

Sandi:                       They could get.

Valerie:                     Then it was also a social thing that if you were upper class you were supposed to be training your body, both for men and women, to be upright etc.; whereas, the sort of loose sort of slovenly body was seen as a lower class phenomenon. Of course, working class women already by the 18th Century and definitely by the 19th Century when you’re mass producing corsets, wanted to assert that they were just as respectable, just as beautiful, just as fashionable as middle and upper class women.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     So when I did my big corset show, I made a point of getting a rare Victorian man’s corset as well as one of the common at the time, but rarely saved, working class women’s corsets. It was the pretty housemaid brand.

Sandi:                       [Laughing] That was the actual name of it?

Valerie:                     That was the name of it.

Sandi;                       Oh wow. Pretty housemaid.

Valerie:                     It was advertised as the cheapest and strongest corset made.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     So you could be down on your hands and knees scrubbing the floor and the bones, which if course were not whale bones – that was way too expensive for a working class corset, they were metal bones – would not break and puncture your side.

Sandi:                       I’d like to move into the idea of models and fashion as you talk about voluptuousness back then and now, well, it’s not a new theory but this image of thin and not having really any curves. I mean, that’s still with us in 2013. Doesn’t that blow your mind a little bit?

Valerie:                     It does. It’s not really true.

Sandi:                       It’s not?

Valerie:                     No. You had models who had very little in the way of breasts in the 60s and 70s, but you also had very skinny male models then too. Both younger, skinnier boys and girls were in fashion; subsequently though, in the 80s and early 90s you had real “glamazon” models.

Sandi:                       Hmm

Valerie:                     People like Naomi Campbell and so on, who had great pronounced breasts; subsequently we’ve also seen much more in the way in pronounced hips and bottoms. What really distinguishes models is they tend to be very young and very tall and they’re a small dress size for the waist.

Sandi:                       Right.

Valerie:                     They do have breasts, they don’t have D Cup breasts, but they definitely do have curves.

Sandi:                       But for someone like me growing up, these were totally un-relatable females. No body spoke to me, they just didn’t talk to me. You’re an impressionable young woman, you really feel bad about that.

Valerie:                     It’s an interesting thing. A lot of people blame models and blame fashion for things like anorexia and I think it’s over simplified. What we know about anorexia it has to do with very much trying to struggle against an overly controlling home environment. There are a lot of factors that go into it that long precede sort of fashion industry and fashion publications. There were anorexic nuns in the middle ages and anorexic women and girls long before fashion got skinny.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     Back in the voluptuous Victorian period there were also anorexics.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     I think that self-image is a very complicated thing and although people certainly do look at models; particularly teen age girls, I think they look much more at each other than they do at the kind of artificial images. If you’re in the fashion world, you see models and models are kind of like another species.

Sandi:                       Huh [Laughing]

Valerie:                     There’re men, women, and there’re fashion models.

Sandi:                       That’s a very good way to put it.

Valerie:                     They really are another species.

Sandi:                       Are they an anomaly?

Valerie:                     Oh. Yeah. They’re genetically blessed, especially for, during their brief life span as a model.

Sandi:                       As a model.

Valerie:                     Which is usually between about fifteen and twenty-three.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     So they’re very, very young and tall and relatively slim compared to the regular population and they have sort of symmetrical features. It’s like another species. It’s like saying I’m jealous of giraffes.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Valerie:                     I want to be like a giraffe.

Sandi:                       Uh Huh.

Valerie:                     In fact, many fashion magazines tend to put actresses and singers on the cover now because people identify more with them than with the models per say.

Sandi:                       Who determined what a model should look like?

Valerie:                     That’s something that we tend to determine all together as a culture. Fashion is not something that’s as monster or a dictator that’s imposed by a small number of people. It’s something that designers and editors and other retailers will propose things. They’ll say, we have one of these looks we think might catch on this year, but then it’s really up to the public what they’re going to decide. They’ll choose which magazine to buy.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     Based largely who’s on the cover. They’ll choose which clothes to buy. So, it’s really a collective production. Although we might say that we want to have more diversity; and I think many of us do want more diversity in terms of body type and racial type because runway models are overwhelmingly white.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm. And why is that?

Valerie:                     I feel that that’s a real mistake on the part of members of the industry in terms of what they thing is going to catch on with the levels of audiences that they have. I think a lot of designers want the models in a sense to be just like coat hangers; to kind of disappear.

Sandi:                       Huh.

Valerie:                     So that you really don’t pay much attention to them, you just see the clothes.

Sandi:                       Okay.

Valerie:                     They all sort of look the same now. For a brief period in the 60s and 70s, you had models of different races and different looks sort of; much more personality going down the runway. Now it’s sort of they tend to be all tall white teenagers and I think it does an injustice actually to the fact that more people would be more responsive to different kinds of beauty.

Sandi:                       I agree. I also think it doesn’t do much for models who become on some level, just invisible. They’re really mannequins in a sense.

Valerie:                     Yes. It’s harder to be a super model nowadays then it was when you could have more personality.

Sandi:                       If given the opportunity, I don’t think I’d want to be a model. I think you work really hard and that you’re invisible and nobody kind of gives a damn what you have to say, just stand there and look attractive or look thin.

Valerie:                     We can all hope, I think, that there’ll be again more diversity in that. I was just at the Paris shows and Rick Owens’ show was really exciting in part because instead of all the tall white teenagers, he brought in a group of women, most of whom were black, who were college students and young women in their twenties. African American women, all different shapes and sizes, had to make the clothes especially for them.

Sandi:                       Okay.

Valerie:                     And then, instead of just walking blandly down the catwalk and back again, they came out doing a performance of stepping.

Sandi:                       Wow!

Valerie:                     It was

Sandi:                       That was a show stopper!

Valerie:                     It was a show stopper. It was absolutely an amazing, amazing show and one of the most exciting things about it was it was a real demonstration, not only that his clothes you could move in, but the point really was, there were all kinds of different beauty and not just the stereotype.

Sandi:                       Are we supposed to say that isn’t he wonderful that he finally got it in 2013?

Valerie:                     It’s something that a lot of people have been demanding and it’s amazing that we’re not seeing more of it. I think he kind of threw the gauntlet down and said

Sandi:                       Challenged

Valerie:                     Challenged people, say, you know, having just one black model in the whole show isn’t really enough.

Sandi:                       Right. I want to talk also now about your exhibit Queer History of Fashion.

Valerie:                     Yeah.

Sandi:                       So, Queer Studies began to promote the idea that fashion could be a form of self-expression, right?

Valerie:                     Yes.

Sandi:                       And so, connect that to the exhibit at FIT.

Valerie:                     Right.

Sandi:                       What sparked that and is it a long time coming?

Valerie:                     My colleague, Senior Curator Fred Dennis had the idea for the exhibition. He and I were going out to lunch, and we’re crossing 7th Avenue and just talking about ideas for future shows and he said wouldn’t it be cool to do a show about gays and fashion? I said, yes! Eureka!

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Valerie:                     Nobody had really done this.

Sandi:                       But everybody just assumes fashion is full of gay men.

Valerie:                     Of course. The assumption is there, but apart from some chit chat on the internet about who’s gay or who’s not, there have been a few small shows at LGBTQ Centers around the country.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     Mostly with contemporary fashion and there had been one show that we finally found in Switzerland, which was called Gay Sheik, about images of gays in fashion, but not so much clothes. Gays and lesbians have been left out of so much of history; kind of forgotten.

Sandi:                       Ignored.

Valerie:                     Ignored. Exactly. Oddly enough, they’ve been left out of fashion history as a kind of, yeah, yeah, everyone knows there’s lots of gay designers around. There’s Mark Jacobs, exc. But no one really thought, well how long has that been going on? If you put fashion history together with queer studies and with history of sexuality, suddenly you started realizing that gays and lesbians, bisexual, transgender people have been interested in fashion for a very long time and have been creating styles that were kind of gay vernacular styles.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     They’d also been having an influence on the fashion industry for a long time. We thought at first we’d just do a 20th Century show, but the more research we did, we went back to Oscar Wilde and beyond, it went all the way back to the 18th Century where there’ve always been people who had same sex love and same sex relations.

Sandi:                       Right.

Valerie:                     Throughout world history.

Sandi:                       Right.

Valerie:                     Ancient Greece, ancient China, everywhere. But, a lot of scholars of history of sexuality feel that the first kind of quasi-modern gay subculture occurred in the 18th Century in Northern European cities like London and Paris. Big cities.

Sandi:                       Mm hmm

Valerie:                     Economically advanced cities. In these cities, there started to be groups of “effeminate sodomites” who would not only hang out together as they did in renaissance Florence for example, but would also start to be creating their own culture; because in renaissance Florence or ancient Greece, gay people wore the same clothes that other men of their age did.

Sandi:                       Okay.

Valerie:                     Age and class, whereas in the 18th Century you start to find some gay men who are of different classes, not just elite powerful men, experimenting with cross-dressing; in private. They don’t want to executed and arrested.

Sandi:                       Gee.

Valerie:                     And experimenting with adapting the clothing of aristocratic men, so more elaborate clothes, which start to be redefined as effeminate.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     Because the wrong people now are wearing them and also starting to become interested in making women’s clothes.

Sandi:                       That interest started when?

Valerie:                     You start to find evidence of it in the 18th Century.

Sandi:                       So before that, men were not really designing women’s clothing?

Valerie:                     We just don’t know.

Sandi:                       Okay.

Valerie:                     We’ll know that one man created a beautiful dress at the court of Louie the 14th, because Madam DeSevenea talks about it in her letters. We have no idea what sexuality he was. But finally in the 18th Century you start to get more and more press and police reports about “a fraternity of pretty gentlemen united by mutual love who are interested in creating women’s/ladies dresses”.

Sandi:                       That doesn’t seem that pejorative to be described that way?

Valerie:                     No. it’s a kind of circling around

Sandi:                       The issue?

Valerie:                     The issue.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     Anyway, we did a lot of research, we set up a big advisory board with lots of scholars as well as gay designers and others to help us figure out what we shouldn’t forget; and then we went out and tried to find as many of the clothes as we could. One scholar, George Chauncey, who wrote the famous book Gay New York – proving how New York had been a center of gay life since the 19th Century, he suggested, oh you should get an outfit by the Cockettes – who were a cross-dressing performance group in San Francisco in the 70s.

Sandi:                       Uh huh. Yes. I’ve heard of them.

Valerie:                     We thought, whoa, are any of them still alive? We found a Cockette outfit and we found early leather gear and so we were able to put together a show which looks not only at gay men as fashion designers but also explores lesbian, bisexuals as designers, as trend setters and as creators of vernacular LGBTQ styles.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     Many of which then would influence mainstream fashion.

Sandi:                       Were you surprised that there were as many lesbian fashion designers?

Valerie:                     It’s interesting. Lesbian and bisexual women are much less “out” then their male counter parts. Even today, maybe because its just tougher being a woman in general in the business, but certainly there’s a long history of evidence that lesbians have been interested in fashion and have been involved in it; both in terms of creating sort of lesbian elegance sort of tailored suites and certain hairstyles already by the 20s and 30s lesbians could recognize one another on the street that way. As well, a number of people in fashion probably were at least bisexual.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     Way back by the 1930s, back when you start to begin to get evidence of the sexuality, sexual identity of individual players in the fashion world.

Sandi:                       Do you think that people might have thought that this exhibit was just basically stating the obvious?

Valerie:                     I think that they may have thought that when they came in, but then when they saw how far back it went, people have been absolutely amazed by the 18th and 19th Century material and by the connections. About bisexual women in the 30s like Marlenea Dietrich wearing trousers.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     This whole kind of gender crossing, about people who were known to be gay within their circles, like Noël Coward, but not by the public in general. About how designers like Dior and Balenciaga, Membase, Molina, Charles James were gay or bisexual people knew it, but they seldom came out and said anything about it. As one woman said, everyone knew Membashe was gay, but nobody said anything. It was only once in a while where someone like Chanel, who was quite possibly bisexual herself;

Sandi:                       But so angry about it, right?

Valerie:                     Well, so angry at gay men.

Sandi:                       Right. Right.

Valerie:                     But Chanel was an equal opportunity hater.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Valerie:                     At different times of her life she hated anyone that she thought was in her way. She hated her female competitors in the 20s and 30s but after World War II when her main competitors were gay men, then she started making very homophobic remarks about Dior and Balenciaga.

Sandi:                       Are you not surprised that there aren’t more female designers who understand our bodies better than men?

Valerie:                     I did a show, actually, I did a book years ago – Women of Fashion – exploring how women worked in the fashion system. To what extent they dominated it or were a minority group in it. To what extent their clothes reflected their gender identity. It’s similar, in a way, with the issue of gay men. There is an influence whether you’re a woman or a gay man etc. on the clothes often but not always. I think it’s a subtle one. It has to do with your own attitudes, the period you’re living in, the attitudes around there. In the 20s and 30s, because of the rise of sort of independent women,

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     Many people just assumed who better to dress a woman than another new woman.

Sandi:                       Exactly.

Valerie:                     But, that hadn’t been true prior to that when the first male designers started coming to the fore and then later when male designers came to the fore, it seemed oh fashion’s an art, maybe; as one fashion designer put it “fashion’s an art, men are the artists.”

Sandi:                       Hello.

Valerie:                     Hello.

Sandi:                       [Laughing]

Valerie:                     The different assumptions play out. Women know their own body, but they don’t necessarily know other women’s bodies any better than men do. it really depends on the individual, their period.

Sandi:                       Very interesting.

Valerie:                     Someone like Chanel, it was all about herself. Dressing herself and imposing her look on others. Someone like Madeline Vionnet, didn’t really want to dress women who were short and stout like her.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                     She wanted to dress women who were tall, who were built well, who moved well, who had the kind of beautiful bodies that she wanted to see in her body worshipping gowns.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm. Where do you see fashion today? Are you encouraged by the students who were at FIT? Are we in a good place?

Valerie:                     The students at FIT are incredibly talented and creative and the fashion world today is filled with lots of creative people.

Sandi:                       So there’s room for everybody?

Valerie:                     Oh! There should be more and more room for everybody and I think really, it’s a question of not waiting and saying, what will fashion do to me; it’s a question of reaching out and saying which part of fashion do I like and that I want to make mine? I really think that the idea of a dictatorship of fashion, an empire of fashion, was never really true and it certainly hasn’t been true since the 1970s. It’s really broken down from an empire of fashion into a whole lot of different warring style tribes.

Sandi:                       Uh Huh

Valerie:                     There’s all kinds of style tribes which are perfectly appropriate for independent modern women who think they’re not interested in fashion. Let’s face it, let’s be honest. Your mom doesn’t buy your clothes, right?

Sandi:                       Nnn

Valerie:                     They don’t grow in your closet?

Sandi:                       No, that’s for sure.

Valerie:                    You are picking your clothes. You have some interest in presenting a particular image of yourself. So, why not be conscious of it and take hold of that and say this is my look.

Sandi:                       And own it.

Valerie:                    Own it. Exactly.

Sandi:                       So, you feel really good about where you are at FIT, where fashion is today?

Valerie:                    I find what I do really fun, really interesting. I love my colleagues. I think the students are fabulous. I’m endlessly happy I went into fashion as a field to study and I think that some of the old feeling that fashion was oppressive to women; in the past there may have been elements of that, although I think that women have to also realize that women in the past had more agency than we might think.

Sandi:                       Mm Hmm

Valerie:                    We can’t just patronize the women of the past as victims. It’s like Mark said, men make their own history but they don’t make it just as they please. Women have, we’ve made our own history, women with fashion. We haven’t made it just as we please, with everything free; but within the choices we’re offered, we’ve made decisions on our own and I think that we have to own what our own relationship is with fashion.

Sandi:                       What a perfect way to end.

Valerie:                    Thank you.

Sandi:                       Valerie Steele, it was really great to meet you. I could have gone on for hours. I want to thank you so much for joining us today.

Valerie:                    Thank you. Thanks.

Sandi:                       Join us again for another edition of The 51% Conversations with Creative Women. If you’d like to reach The 51%, contact us at I’m Sandi Klein.

Narrator:                 Thanks for listening to The 51% Conversations with Creative Women. For show comments and suggestions please follow us on Twitter at #sandikleinshow. You can also find us on Facebook at The 51% Conversations. The show is produced and recorded by Chad Dougatz at the Hangar Studios in New York City. Sandi Klein is our executive producer.






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