FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) is a private college in Downtown L.A. offering majors in fashion design, interior design, merchandising and marketing and many others.
FIDM also features a museum and galleries that are open to the public.
Kevin Jones, curator, has been at his post for 15 years. Recently, accompanied by the very stylish Susan Aronson, long-time executive director of admissions, he gave me a tour.
“The FIDM collection is one of the most important in the country, with more than 15,000 pieces of historic dress, men’s and women’s, from 1800 to the present, as well as accessories, jewelry, fragrance packaging and ephemera.”
The museum was founded in 1978 as a nonprofit and boasts both a hands-on study collection and a permanent collection.
“The first study collection was donated literally from people’s closets. We’re very proud to have overseen its expansion to a phenomenal collection and cultural resource, not only for our design students but for researchers around the world.”
Kevin’s fervor is palpable. Once an item enters the collection, he reports firmly, it’s never again worn on a human body.
“Fragrances, body oils, stress points. No, no. You could do real damage very easily.”
Stopping before a glass case in the lobby, he reverently observes, “This is a 1970’s Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo. The fabric’s an orchid silk charmeuse in a modified cowl drape. Think of it as one great big neckline that goes the whole length of her back. One sleeve is a cape sleeve; the other is fitted. It’s all wonderfully asymmetrical.”
As we head toward the main storage area where most of the collection is housed, Kevin explains:
“We are a design museum. We are not an art museum. We are not a history museum. If the First Lady wore something and it’s ugly, it’s not going to be in our collection. Every item has to have been important design in its day and in excellent condition.”
As a curator, Kevin is always searching for something that’s new; something that will open our eyes and educate.
For 14 years, he’s been acquiring, searching, hoping in anticipation of a major exhibition that’s due to open at last in the fall of 2018: “Outdoor Girls: Sporting Fashion, 1800 to 1950s.”
“Simply walking outdoors was once considered a sporting-like activity for women. We’re looking at how certain really bold women got out of their familiar environment to participate in and contribute to the greater world.”
We stop before a bank of mannequins dressed for a photo shoot.
“Now here’s a really elaborate outfit about which you might ask: How could this possibly be related to sport? This is a traveling ensemble from the 1850s. The dress is a wool challis in an amazing kind of electric purpley-blue with a paisley motif over which she’s wearing a plaid traveling mantle. The bonnet is padded with silk waist and that matching neck ruff is called a bavolet. Her little travel bag is Berlin work, and then taupey-brown kid gloves.”
The next “girl” is sporting a shin-length cotton dress with tights and lace-up canvas boots. “Tennis?” I venture.
“Oh no, darling, no. That’s her bathing ensemble, circa 1898-1900. She would get into the ocean like this, completely dressed. The swimsuit we think of today didn’t fall out of the sky. We want to show how women became more and more active, taking chances with what they were allowed to present outside the home.”
We move on to an outfit by Gilbert Adrian, who designed costumes for MGM and later had his own couture house on Wilshire Boulevard: “An off-the-shoulder patio gown in printed rayon, circa 1948.” I could listen to Kevin’s descriptions all day.
“Copper jewelry, sunglasses, gilt kid sandals. All the Outdoor Girls have a story of what they’re doing. So she’s in the Hollywood Hills, in her huge mansion, and she’s going to throw a glam pool party.”
There was more. Two exhibits were on display: “Opulent Art: 18th Century Dress from the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection” and “Artfully Adorned: Jewelry from the Christie Romero Collection.” In the textiles & materials department, director Kristine Upesleja showed us futuristic smart fabrics, glass jars of “bio couture,” and high-end textiles so sumptuous that just touching them gave me goosebumps.
The school presents lectures, gallery openings and runway shows throughout the year. The building, on 9th and Grand, features a lovely courtyard perfect for people-watching (trend-spotting predictive analysts come from around the world to check out what the students are wearing).
But it was Kevin’s devotion to historic sportswear — by the time the show opens, he will have been working on it for 17 years — that brought fashion back around, after all, to the human body and the human heart. As he described a “little silk knit tie” from a ‘20s golf ensemble, I remarked, “Clearly, this is your passion.”
“Yes,” he replied. “I’ve only ever wanted to work in the museum field. And I’ve never not loved historic dress. My grandmother on my mother’s side loved fashion. My grandfather on my father’s side loved everything old. He loved history. Those two people literally came together perfectly in me.”