What influenced your course of study in textiles? When I was an undergraduate at Colorado State University, I enrolled in a History of Textiles class that changed the course of my life. I have always loved fabrics, fashion, and interiors and was drawn to the study of their history. I hadn’t realized that the study of these things could actually be a career. Today, in my current position, I feel extremely lucky to work with the collection that inspired me to pursue a career in museum work.
How did you get involved with the museum? In 2009, the Avenir Collection was relocated from its longtime home on the main university campus to the newly opened University Center for the Arts. At that time, I was hired as a part-time employee to unpack and rehouse the collection in the new facility. Over the past dozen years, I have served in several roles: as the Avenir Museum’s Collections Manager, Assistant Curator, occasional adjunct faculty, and Interim Curator.
Can you tell us some of the history of the museum and the textile program at Colorado State?
The Avenir Museum is housed within the CSU Department of Design and Merchandising, which offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nationally accredited programs. The Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising houses the university’s teaching collection of textiles, clothing, and fashion. The museum also serves as a public museum of historically and culturally significant items of dress, textiles, and interior artifacts representing regional, national, and international cultures.
The museum’s collection began in the 1950s under Dagmar Gustafson, a professor in the department at the time, who brought in items to teach students about garment construction. She later became the chair of the department at a time when the collection included only select examples of historic dress and textiles from around the world. Over the next several decades, the collection grew in size and scope, and in 1987, a dedicated exhibition space named the Gustafson Gallery was established. In 2009, the Historic Clothing and Textile Collection and the primary exhibition space were relocated to the main University Center for the Arts building. In 2016, a newly expanded facility, which also houses the collection, officially became the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising.
Tell us about what you do at the museum.
In my role as Collections Manager, I am responsible for the day-to-day maintenance and care of the Avenir Collection. I plan and oversee healthy storage conditions for the items, manage all the documentation related to the objects in the collection, and work with the museum team to direct collecting goals and plan for strategic acquisitions that will continue to enhance the Avenir Collection. I also work closely with students and faculty in several departments across campus to support the needs of their curriculum.
The other side of my current position is Assistant Curator. In this role, I get to dream up exhibition topics, undertake object-based material culture research, design exhibition layouts, and write label copy. I love telling stories through objects; the freedom and fun of creating and curating exhibitions is exhilarating, as is the collaborative process of designing and building an exhibition with the staff and volunteers. My most recent exhibition is an exploration of the designer Arnold Scaasi (1930–2015). The exhibition design is organized like a color wheel, focusing on primary colors in the center of the gallery and spinning out into secondary colors around the perimeter. Developing every exhibition is different, which gives me a chance to explore new topics and push myself to find creative design solutions to best educate and entertain museum visitors.
Left to right: Red Kimono, red silk kimono with hand-painted floral and ocean motifs (Avenir Museum 83.7.7); This gold and silver lace dress from 1928 featuring several rows of ruffled red silk at the hipline to accentuate the wide horizontal line created by the pannier’s foundation (Avenir Museum 87.1.27); Indian Blouse, cotton blouse with shisha embroidery made by the Rabari people of Gujarat, India (Avenir Museum 2007.39). Photos courtesy of Colorado State University Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising, CSU Creative Services
What is your favorite item in the collection?
This is always a hard question to answer, as my favorites change quite frequently. In fact, I probably can find a favorite object in each cabinet, although there is one piece I always come back to: a gold lace dress from 1928 that features horizontal rows of bright bold red ruffles across the front and back of the dress just below hip level and affixed over an understructure of panniers (pictured above). The reason I love this dress is that it is so different from the dominant columnar silhouette of the decade. The combination of delicate lace and bright red is eye-catching and fun, and I find the historical reference to the larger panniers of the late eighteenth century fascinating.
Can you share some information about the collection? In addition to American and European fashions from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, the museum is also home to dress and textiles from Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America, as well as a variety of textile fabrication tools, industrial patterns, domestic textiles, lace, and a small collection of chairs. As a teaching collection today, we are first and foremost a resource for students and faculty at CSU. I always tell students to think of the Avenir as the library of dress and textiles. You cannot check a piece out, but you can come in to examine historic dress and textiles up close, turn them inside out to study their construction, and explore surface design techniques.
What techniques are used in the creation of the garments?
The Avenir Collection is a broadly global collection of dress and textiles. The techniques that are used to create the objects run the gamut from wax-resist dyeing techniques to delicate embroidery, from traditional ikat weaving to hand- and machine-made lace. We even house a dress made from a shower curtain!
What are your favorite techniques in the creation of a garment?
I don’t really have a favorite technique. What I find especially interesting is how objects deteriorate over time. I enjoy sharing garments with students that demonstrate different levels of deterioration. One of my favorite objects to show is a discharge-printed brown bodice with white polka dots from 1885. The fabric has begun to disintegrate in the areas where the brown dye was discharged to create the white polka dots. I would guess the person who designed this piece did not consider the object would still be around almost 140 years later, let alone how the fabric would react to the process it underwent at the time of creation. I want students to understand that every choice they make, no matter how insignificant, will have implications down the line—maybe not today or in ten years, but what about a hundred years from now? I want them to consider that what they create today will be part of our collective historical record.
What plans do you have for your future in art and design?
I plan to continue my work at the Avenir Museum, caring for this tremendous resource, sharing it with students, and engaging the public through intriguing and entertaining exhibitions.
This article first appeared in PieceWork Winter 2022.
Also, remember that if you are an active subscriber to PieceWork magazine, you have unlimited access to previous issues, including Winter 2022. See our help center for the step-by-step process on how to access them.