As the Museum at FIT’s director and chief curator, Valerie Steele is one of the industry’s leading historians. She has about a dozen books under her belt (more on the way), countless museums exhibits, and even guest spot on Oprah. If ever there were a walking encyclopedia on fashion, it would be Steele (yeah, she’s penned an encyclopedia too). With a new book, Gothic: Dark Glamour, and corresponding FIT exhibition opening in September, she talks about her first big fashion purchase (she hyperventilated), her love of black, and how corsets got her career started.
You have a new book on gothic fashion coming out. What inspired it?
The subculture’s been around since about 1979, and it’s never really disappeared. Certain designers like McQueen have consistently been mining, if not the subculture, then at least the source that the goth kids thrived on themselves like Victoriana. So that evolved into the book and the full-scale exhibition, over the course of which I got to interview tons of goth kids and middle-aged people who had been goth kids. I still have the show to work on which opens in September.
Oh yeah, how’s the preparation for the show going?
Great, now I’m in production meetings for the layout. You’ll come in to see little vignettes: Origins of Terror, then Victorian Cult of Mourning, and Vampires. And we’ll have a Cabinet of Curiosity with a wax head and death mask.
What designer clothes can we expect to see?
Rick Owens, Gareth Pugh, Rodarte, Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, McQueen. But we’re also featuring people that you might not expect, like Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel haute couture or Valentino couture.
Why did you decide to become a fashion historian?
I had an epiphany my first term at Yale grad school where I’d gone to study European cultural and intellectual history. My classmate gave a presentation about the Victorian corset. And I realized fashion’s part of culture. Most of my professors thought this was a really stupid idea.
Isn’t fashion in a strict academic setting often looked down upon?
It’s so true! I wrote an article once called the “The F-Word” about how academics view fashion. People wouldn’t even talk to me about it with their names being used!
You’ve written about a dozen books. Any favorites?
When I die they’ll probably mention Fetish, Fashion, Sex, & Power and The Corset: A Cultural History.
Had you ever considered being a designer?
That’s not my strength. I don’t have the skills for cutting, pattern-making.
Are there designers from the past that you think don’t get enough cultural recognition today?
Sure, most. Madeleine Vionnet or Charles James — two of the greatest designers of the twentieth century.
What are trends that you really love right now?
I’m pleased that black is a big trend. Ninety-nine percent of my clothes are black.
What trends do you wish would go away?
I don’t really take a moralistic attitude like “how could they have that!” If it’s right for someone, that’s fine.
What was the first designer item you ever bought?
A Gaultier black leather jacket. It has big sleeves, and it’s tight-fitted like a corset shape. I paid more for that than I’d ever paid for anything. Afterwards, I sat down on the pavement and started hyperventilating.
Where do you shop?
Barneys and Ina. My husband also says I should have a special American Express card for Comme des Garçons.
Which designer do you wear most?
Comme des Garçons, Yeohlee, Yohji Yamamoto, and Isabel Toledo.
What’s the last thing you bought?
Hats by Yohji and a vintage Matsuda. —Kendall Herbst