Unusual Jobs: A Day In The Life of A Museum Curator (And Why Fashion Really Does Matter)
January 5, 2015 | By:

Fashion carries so much history. At the Museum of the City of New York, we talk to a curator who tells us how clothes act as a time capsule and why women always remember what they wore

exposed zippers

The “Infanta Margarita after Velázquez” gown, a dress replicated from a 1665 painting by Diego Velázquez. Photo by Gilded New York

The book Love, Lost and What I Wore, Diana Vreeland and Fortuny have all played a part in Phyllis Magidson’s career trajectory which led to her current position as Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Museum of the City of New York.  In this capacity, she oversees exhibitions both at the museum and, most recently, online. Additionally, Phyllis oversees the museum’s permanent collection of over 27,000 costumes and accessories and loans to other exhibitions. Her current exhibit, “Gilded New York”, exudes opulence, history drama – elements of the New York City  — past and present.

How did your career bring you to your position as Curator at MCNY?

I was totally smitten at the MET Costume Institute and volunteered for their Vanity Fair Women in Style exhibition. There, I studied under Elizabeth Lawrence, the Chief Restorer when Mrs. Vreeland was at the helm. At the time, I was also restoring garments for private clients and transformed a Fortuny Dephus pleated gown that had been purchased at auction back to its original design. I showed it to the then curator at MCNY who was impressed with my work. Eventually, through that connection, I slipped into my position here.

Did you always want to work in fashion and/or the arts?

I have a Masters of Fine Arts and always wanted to work in the arts, particularly fine art and the theatre. When I started, costume and museum studies was not yet crystallized as a career path. Fortuitously, I discovered my art history background could be applied to costume and textiles at MCNY.

What is a typical day like for the MCNY Curator of Costumes and Textiles?

There is no typical day. The job entails everything from media exposure to fielding inquiries thru social media to developing exhibition concepts to consulting with the education department on programs.

How much time do you spend researching an exhibition?

A major exhibition is in works for 2+ years. Preparation includes research and resourcing, locating objects for exhibition, and budgeting as well as planning public programs. There’s typically a publication, which includes exhibition content and major essays. We try and work with the designer in a manner that is engaging and memorable to our public.

What led to the current Gilded Age exhibition?

We felt our new Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery was the perfect setting for Gilded New York. We wanted to create something jewel-like, special and intimate for the inaugural exhibition, where we showcase for some of the most important designs from our permanent collection. Three curators collaboratively selected objects that spoke to the era’s opulence.

The Worth & Mainbocher online exhibit is a fascinating way to view fashion history. What do you think are advantages to the online exhibit?

Exhibiting online gives us an opportunity to develop major history themes. Hi-res photos enable the public to view objects more efficiently and in greater detail. While you lose that moment of walking into an exhibition and being blown away, it makes people understand the elaborate craft of haute couture in a way you cannot do in gallery.

As curator, I am very committed to preservation. Costumes are perishable and limited in duration of time pieces can be exhibited. Plus, 19th Century costume is very elaborate in its components – silk, metal, brocade, trims, feather, fur and we could never have them on display long enough to satisfy public desire.

Do you see online exhibitions as growing trend for art and fashion?

Certainly, I do. I think more and more museums are turning to digital exhibits. It’s a way of augmenting the physical museum.

Exhibitions are expensive to mount and online is so accessible. It gives us a way to always have something to show the public.

How big is the MCNY permanent collection?

It includes 27,000 objects of costumes and accessories from the late 17th Century to present. We have been collecting since the late 1920s.

Recently, we’ve stepped back to confirm everything in the collection belongs and addresses the lifestyle of New York, belonged to a New Yorker or was made or worn in New York. This allows us to include many things such as Worth as representation of the taste level style of New York City.

How and where is it stored?

We store our permanent collection on site. Recently, we completed an expansion, including a major exhibition gallery, 2 curatorial levels and the Frederick Education Center.

Do other museums come to you for loans and/or exhibition collaboration?

Absolutely. Most recently, we loaned 4 garments for MET Costume Institute’s ‘Death Becomes Her’ exhibition.

What makes fashion history fascinating for you? What do you think makes it fascinating for the public?

Both are the same answer. Fashion is the most personal means of expression for an individual. Ultimately, you craft your appearance. The viewer learns about everything when looking at a garment. Historically, we see it in emancipation. How women could move, and breathe, was all affected by garments.

In literature, we learn about women’s minds through dress. People remember clothes. Love, Loss and What I Wore remains a real benchmark and tribute to the wardrobe as a time capsule.