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We recently attended a lecture by Valerie Steele in Rhode Island at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) followed by a book signing and dinner at the Faculty Club at Brown University. Steele’s pleasantness and self-confidence shine when in public. Gracious and humble, she triggers a gravitational pull, causing audiences to thirst for more of her insights, while her fans behave as if she were a rock star. We had the opportunity to spend some time with Steele, and she kindly shared her thoughts about a topic of personal passion.
The most challenging task when writing about Dr. Valerie Steele is coming face to face with how overwhelmingly noteworthy this scholar, intellectual, and historian’s accomplishments overshadow an individual’s effort to share her remarkable success and focus on the totality of her life and knowledge.
Steele, the director and chief curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City, has curated more than 20 significant exhibits including Gothic: Dark Glamour; Love & War: The Weaponized Woman; The Corset: Fashioning the Body; and Femme Fatale: Fashion in Fin-de-Siècle Paris.
She is also the author of countless books, with a vast collection of titles including Men and Women: Dressing the Part, Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers, Fetish: Fashion, Sex, and Power, China Chic: East Meets West, and Shoes: a Lexicon of Style. Steele’s academic achievements include; the role of editor-in-chief and founder of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.
Then, there is her well-deserved celebrity and attribution of being the “go-to” person for expert advice. Steele has gained provenance when called out as, “Fashion’s 50 Most Powerful,” by the New York Daily News. She is an impressive lecturer and has appeared on network television, PBS, as well as profiled by Forbes and the New York Times.
The Start of Something Great
Fashion, for all of what it is worth, has been critical to individuals and related businesses but never as a serious subject matter by scholars. Evidence of this circumvention is noted when Steele recalls an encounter (referencing the “F” word—fashion—in a video, New York University 2013), then again in the preface in one of her most loved contributions, Paris Fashion: a Cultural History (1998 & 2017).
“Paris Fashion was my second book and remains one of my favorites. I started working on it in graduate school, even before I finished my doctoral dissertation. At that time, fashion was not an acceptable field of study within academia. Once at a cocktail party at Yale University, an eminent historian asked me the subject of my research. ‘Fashion,’ I replied. ‘That’s very interesting,’ he said. ‘German or Italian?’ It took me a few minutes, but eventually, the penny dropped. ‘Fashion,’ I explained, ‘as in Paris. Not…Fascism.’ He turned and walked away.”
From this, Steele became laser-focused, but not on contemporary styles and trends. Instead, she examined what influences fashion. Insight into her motivation and research appears to be partly consumed by the belief that clothes and society are co-dependent. If we are to believe that there’s truth in this connection, then Steele’s ability to succinctly package historical facts and link progressions in styles and trends through the ages only exemplifies her inimitable talent for piecing together the power that Paris has to influencing fashion.
Today and Tomorrow
Steele views the world of fashion differently than most. If she is in New York at a runway show, she might not necessarily be looking at where style is heading; instead, she’s likely placing it on a spectrum and deciding how this year’s look will fit into her next exhibit.
Steele’s founding of Fashion Theory, the first peer-review scholarly journal in fashion studies, played a monumental role in the establishment of an “interdisciplinary and international field of study.” It also laid claim to defining fashion as “the cultural construction of the embodied identity,” which applies to both women and men’s clothing and accessories. The concept also extends to learning and understanding the foundation and practices, including but not limited to exposing body parts, mutilation, modern-day marketing, and promotional activity.
As plentiful as shows have become, Steele believes that four main events influence fashion. In her vision, “fashion pushes fashion,” but it moves at a snail’s pace. Given the opportunity, we asked Steele about her thoughts on how history impacts contemporary style and which periods are determining what we see launched for 2018-2019.
Steele said, “The four main fashion shows that have significance are: New York, which in the past has been more conservative or even parochial; there’s London, which is way out there and wild; Italy is sexy and more luxurious; and then, Paris [offers] what would be considered mostly ‘high fashion.’”
She added, “Fashion is about change and novelty, but it also frequently references the past. Designers look back at previous decades to get ideas for their new collections. Sometimes, there is a synergy between past and present. But, at other times, the choice of which ‘retro’ style to revive seems more arbitrary. Perhaps a popular film was set in the 1980s, and some were reminded of how cool ‘80s styles could be.”
We asked, “What about those who are critical of the business and its questionable evolution in the states. We often hear that trends are lacking, and it seems each year is a repeat of fads—what are your feelings?”
Steele says that there continue to be trends in fashion, however because of fast-fashion, “the need to seek immediate gratification” we see trends come and go much more quickly. She also believes, “No one wants to wait for a season to go by before wearing what they just saw, they want to buy immediately, and so often designers are having to be able to sell as they are showing on the runway.”
When asked where the guidance for new fashion comes, Steele referenced a quote by Christian Dior: “Designers propose new styles, but the ladies decide which proposals they want to accept.”
“Designers and editors have much less influence today than in Dior’s time,” she explained,” the business has changed and is inundated with many more prototypes than could ever be launched.
Because of this influx of new talent, we asked what she could offer to designers coming up the ladder.
Steele was very frank when she gave this advice: “Independent fashion designers are facing an ever-more-competitive field, squeezed between the big luxury companies on the one hand, and the big fast fashion companies on the other. To get noticed, you really need to, (1) know your customer, and (2) be able to brand yourself as the voice or face of your customer.”
As dinner ended, Steele announced exclusively to this magazine, that New York City’s most fashionable philanthropic group, the Couture Council, will be presenting the group’s Award for Artistry of Fashion to the designer, Narciso Rodriguez this fall.
The Couture Council is an elite membership group that supports The Museum at FIT, and its effort to help the museum mount world-class exhibitions, build and conserve its extraordinary permanent collection while offering free educational public programs and serve FIT’s 10,000 students.
The Couture Council, working in conjunction with the museum, also organizes activities and events to raise the institution’s profile. The most important of these events is the Couture Council’s award ceremony and benefit luncheon. Designers who have received the Couture Council Award include Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, and the late Oscar de la Renta.
On Wednesday, September 5, the Couture Council will present Narciso Rodriguez with the Award for Artistry of Fashion at the David H. Koch Theater of Lincoln Center. The luncheon is planned for 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.
The next evening, luncheon attendees will be invited to the opening reception for Valerie Steele’s new exhibit, Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color.
For more information or to reserve tickets, visit fitnyc.edu/luncheon or email firstname.lastname@example.org.