Her Personal Trace Writ Large


Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) building on 7th Ave

In the concentrated environs of a defined project or specialised archive, it’s sometimes surprising how the humdrum can take on a profound significance.

Yesterday afternoon, I made a much-anticipated research trip to the Special Collections at the renowned Fashion Institute of  Technology (FIT)*: the first of several planned visits.  The planning process looms large for the archive researcher.  I had searched the online catalogue of holdings at FIT months before my arrival in order to identify relevant sources around which to ‘hang’ my Fellowship.  A flurry of email correspondence with a number of archivists and assistants at FIT then followed: access to archives is not a ‘given’ but a privilege granted.  As with any high profile collection, requests from visiting scholars are a dime a dozen (to use the vernacular).  It is necessary, then, to make a strong case for a visit and to be very specific about the exact items to be consulted during it.  If nothing else, most collections are open to researchers for  short periods only and all parties need to be clear about how to use that allotted time productively.  Needless to say, having presented myself at the ascribed time and place for my allotted three-hour stint in the FIT archives (and navigating the standard security procedures and waiver forms), I positively motored through my note-taking and the time disappeared in a flash.

There is something comfortingly ritualistic about the choreographed, set, performance of the visiting researcher making their ‘pilgrimage’ to an archive.  The metaphor of ritual can be taken further.  On arrival, the requested artefacts have been ‘called’ from storage and are placed, with due reverence, ready for consultation.  There is, for me at least, an aura around these items, each packed with care, each recorded with precision, each considered special.  And the items I perused  yesterday were indeed special, comprising Elizabeth Hawes’s  draft manuscripts (including an unpublished work on the future of moulded clothing), press cuttings, tear sheets and notes.  The whole of it was thoroughly absorbing as I endeavoured to make sense of Liz’s, now familiar, muddlesome, style of prose and to navigate a logical path through the sheaf of papers set before me.  However, the thing that bowled me over most was seeing Liz’s own handwriting for the first time, and there was enormous amounts of it to see (and decipher).  Her draft manuscripts were littered with marginalia, annotations and edits, some in thick red crayon, most in prosaic blue ballpoint: her personal trace writ large.  And, as you might guess, her hand was as artistic and as bold as the women herself.

*Arriving early for my research appointment, I also managed to take in the ‘A Queer History of Fashion’ exhibition at the Museum at FIT, co-curated by Fred Dennis and Valerie Steele.  The items on display were of extraordinary quality and it’s hard to pick out some highlights.  Given my 1930s focus, perhaps special mention should be given to the selection of Marlene Dietrich pieces, that included a tuxedo worn in ‘Morocco’ (1930).  Although, in complete contrast, I also loved the quirky concept of the newspaper dress by Geoffrey Beene from 1989.