Where Do Art Museums Get All Those Dresses?

As a Schiaparelli exhibition opens at the Dalí Museum in Florida, we talk to fashion curator Dilys Blum about how one museum built its Schiaparelli collection.

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Oct 27 2017, 7:00pm

A new exhibition on Elsa Schiaparelli's collaborations with Salvador Dalí opened earlier this month at Florida's Dalí Museum, highlighting the Surrealist fashion designer's symbiotic relationship with the sensual weirdness of the movement's art, literature, and writing. Viewing dresses in a museum setting, you can sometimes forget that they are not only objects to be examined, but first and foremost, intended to be worn. So how do dresses make it out of someone's closet and in a museum hall, meant to be as evocative and scrutinized as any other kind of art?

For this exhibition, the Dalí Museum relied heavily on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, overseen by Costume Curator Dilys Blum, who says the show features about 17 pieces from her museum's collection. As for how those pieces made it into the PMA, Blum says that their collection began in 1969, when members of the Philadelphia branch of the industry advisory Fashion Group International approached the designer about acquiring some of her pieces for the museum. "It was at the point when people had forgotten who she was," said Blum in a phone interview. "She was just overwhelmed that anyone would want to have her collection, so she gave us about 71 pieces, a few to the Victoria & Albert Museum, and then after she died or right before, in 1973, another group [of garments] went ot the Museé de la Mode in Paris."

True to her artistic spirit, Schiaparelli selected the garments to coordinate with the PMA's collections, "her iconic pieces that fit with our modern paintings and Surrealist art," Blum said.

Not all the PMA's Schiaparelli pieces came through the designer herself, however. The first Schiaparelli pieces that came to the Museum were a selection of her tromp l'oeil sweaters, from the late '20s, that had belonged to a Philadelphia artist, meaning early customers of Schiaparelli's were aware they were buying something with significant artistic value. The museum's most recent Schiaparelli piece came in the early '90s, and is a centerpiece of this new Dalí exhibition: a black crepe dress with a long train that hooks underneath the waist to create a caryatid-like silhouette. "That was just by chance—it belonged to a woman's aunt," said Blum. "Her aunt had bought the dress to wear on a trip to Europe on board a ship."

It was from this collection that Blum mounted the first major exhibition of Schiaparelli, in 2003, which, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2012 show on Schiaparelli and Prada, helped reignite interest in the designer. Blum added that it was the Fashion Group that was responsible for encouraging the museum to build up its collection of fashion and costume, beginning shortly after World War II, when the group "was really trying to push contemporary dress—that was in 1947 or so." The exhibition in Florida also includes a selection of garments from the house's contemporary revival, so keep that Moda Operandi packaging—you might need it when you're ready to donate that gown to the nearest museum.