INTERVIEW: JOANNA ABIJAOUDE, FASHION HISTORIAN

Joanna Abijaoude is an M.A. candidate in the Visual Culture: Costume Studies program at New York University. She has held curatorial, collections, and research internships at the Ralph Lauren Library, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, FIDM Museum & Galleries, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. This summer, she will join FIDM Museum & Galleries as a Museum Assistant. Read what Joanna has to say about landing her first job in a fashion collection, attending the costume studies program at NYU, and her advice on pursuing a career in fashion history. 

Why did you pursue a career in fashion history

I have my mom to thank for my introduction to this field; she is an excellent seamstress, and has a wonderful appreciation for well-constructed, beautifully designed clothes. My sisters and I grew up watching classic films with leading ladies in extravagant wardrobes, and I think old Hollywood glamour was my gateway into fashion history – in fact, I wrote my thesis about a costume designer! I was probably the only kid singing Gigi on the playground, but I am so grateful for that early exposure. As an Arizona native, I was also very fortunate to have access to the Phoenix Art Museum and its fantastic costume collection. Our frequent visits to those fashion exhibitions showed me that an interest in costume history could actually become a career.

What were a few of the necessary steps you took to help ensure that you would land a job in this very competitive field

We all know internships are important, and I think it’s especially true in this field. Fashion history, particularly in the museum context, is a very hands-on, physical profession, and the opportunity to watch and learn techniques from experts is incredibly valuable. Having the experience and connections that come from internships will make you a better candidate when a job opens up. I also chose to get an M.A. in Costume Studies; taking on a secondary degree is a big commitment, but for me it felt like a necessary step. Besides building your knowledge base, fashion history programs are a great way to network and discover new possibilities in the industry. It’s inspiring to see how the degree can be applied outside of the museum world – graduates have gone on to work in publishing, conservation, design, archives, and academia, to name a few.

What genre, era or mode of fashion do you find most interesting

I’ve always loved the early twentieth-century, from 1900 to the early teens –possibly because my sisters and I had a set of Poiret paper dolls! There was an electric energy of change during these years that translated into fashion with exotic silhouettes and vivid colors. The Ballet Russes was a major influence on the visual arts, and that intersection between dance and fashion produced fascinating designs. Exquisite pochoir fashion illustrations from the period capture the pervading elegance and progressive spirit.

Tell us about an exciting project you’ve had the opportunity to work on

I think it’s really meaningful when you can connect historic garments to the people who wore and collected them. Two projects that come to mind focus on strong women who made significant contributions to the fashion world. I was thrilled to be a part of the Fashion Independent installation with Dennita Sewell when it travelled to the Georgia Art Museum. Institutions rarely have the opportunity to inherit one woman’s entire wardrobe, especially one filled with the top designers of the twentieth century. Ann Bonfoey Taylor was a fashion connoisseur, athlete, sportswear designer, and tastemaker; her collection is an important resource for the Phoenix Art Museum and fashion history students. I’m also proud to have worked with the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection at FIDM Museum & Galleries. The museum is currently fundraising to acquire the collection of over 1,100 pieces, representing four hundred years of fashion history. I digitized the ephemera from the collection, and I loved reading the correspondence between Larson and Doris Langley Moore, a woman who helped establish the academic study of dress and founded the Fashion Museum in Bath, England. These supporting documents give the provenance and backstory of the garments, and make the collection all the more valuable to the institution.

Why do you think fashion exhibits have increased in popularity over the last few years

Fashion has always drawn crowds to museums, but Savage Beauty, the 2011 retrospective on Alexander McQueen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, had record-breaking audience attendance, and is widely credited with renewing the vogue for large-scale fashion exhibitions across the globe. These extensive shows are not feasible for all institutions, but I think the enthusiasm and publicity surrounding blockbuster exhibitions introduce new audiences to fashion history, and hopefully encourage more visits to smaller museums. Period costumes in television and movies, such as Mad Men, Marie Antoinette, and The Great Gatsby, can also strike a chord with the public and spark an interest in fashion history. I think the popularity of fashion exhibitions can be further explained by our personal relationship to clothing. We have a physical and emotional connection to garments; when we see them in a museum setting, no matter what period the clothes are from, it is as if we are viewing an extension of ourselves. If you listen to comments made while walking through a fashion exhibition, they are usually about how it would feel to wear the objects – how difficult it would be to sit, walk, or even breathe. We automatically associate ourselves with the garments on display because they are so much a part of our identities. We make two essential decisions everyday: what to eat, and what to wear. It makes sense that something so vital to our quotidian existence is fascinating for us to view in the context of a museum.

 Is there a fashion collection or exhibition you’ve been wanting to see

I have an itinerary on standby for when that lottery ticket comes through – right now the top three on my wish list are the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa in Getaria, Spain; the Musée Christian Dior in Grainville, France; and the Mode Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. There are so many exhibitions I wish I could see, I just have to keep my fingers crossed that shows continue to travel internationally!

How do you see this industry evolving in the future

Most museums now have blogs and social media accounts to share the behind- the-scenes of an exhibition, and I think this presence will continue to grow. I also love the idea of online exhibitions, because they offer a wonderful opportunity for people to view a collection without traveling (see above!) and even allow for a detailed look at garment construction that wouldn’t be possible in a physical display. This Worth & Mainbocher online exhibition from the Museum of the City of New York is a beautiful example. Digital technology is increasingly incorporated into exhibitions, sometimes with truly stunning results – the talking mannequins at the Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective come to mind. However, I think a balance of media is essential, because it is easy for technology to turn gimmicky and distract viewers from the objects on display. There is also a definite push for museums to make photographs of their collections available online, which is an incredible resource for the public but brings up complicated issues of copyright and quality control for institutions. Anyone entering the industry at this time will have consider all the digital elements of exhibiting fashion going forward.

Any advice you'd like to share with young people looking to get into the field

Get involved! Conferences, lectures, and museum events are a great way to network and stay informed about the latest developments in this field. In addition to internships, these experiences will give you the chance to meet mentors who can advise you, and colleagues who you will remain connected to throughout your career. The fashion history community is a very small world, and you never know where a volunteer opportunity or new acquaintance will lead. On that note, be open and innovative when it comes to applying your interests to a job; this is a relatively young discipline and there is plenty of scholarship to be done. Don’tunderestimate what you can contribute to this growing field!