Black Fashion Museum collection finds a fine home with Smithsonian

Joyce Bailey donated her deceased mother's collection of garments designed and worn by African Americans over the course of generations to the Smithsonian's soon-to-be-constructed National Museum of African American History and Culture.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010

The velvet opera coat was stretched out on a bed of archival paper and tucked into a person-size box that resembled a humble coffin. A clutch of Smithsonian curators and restoration experts gently lifted it -- like scholarly pallbearers with white gloved hands and keen eyes for precision -- onto an examination table for loving inspection.

The coat, estimated to be from the early 1900s and possibly more than 100 years old, was exquisitely crafted of sapphire blue velvet with what looked to be soutache embroidery in a swirling pattern of fern leaves. The decoration had long ago faded into a delicate shade of pale brown, but its original extravagance remained evident. The trumpet-shaped sleeves are trimmed in fur, the origin of which remains unknown until experts from the Museum of Natural History have spoken. It's easy to imagine a pampered and cultured lady wrapped in this coat for an evening of high art.

The garment was designed and created by its onetime owner, Louvenia Price. Price is notable for what she is not. She is not an upper-class lady for whom "help" was always a noun and never a verb. Price was a former slave. Which makes her coat, with its aura of prideful elegance, an especially audacious statement.

Where was a former slave going in a regal velvet opera coat? Who, pray tell, did she think she was?

The coat is part of a treasure-trove of garments designed and worn by African Americans over the course of generations that was donated in 2007 to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by Joyce Bailey. Her mother, Lois Alexander Lane, founded, curated and kept on life support for almost 30 years the Black Fashion Museum. The modest monument to African American creativity first opened its doors in 1979 in an unremarkable Harlem brownstone. In 1994, it relocated to Washington. And among its most resonant artifacts are garments created by slaves, by famed dressmakers Ann Lowe and Rosa Parks, contemporary designers Stephen Burrows and Geoffrey Holder and countless anonymous seamstresses. Black history -- American history -- stitched out of cotton and lace.

When Lane died in 2007 at 91, after a long struggle with Alzheimer's, it fell to her daughter, a retired District biology teacher living on a modest income, to shepherd her mother's dream to a just end.

For years, Bailey, an only child, struggled to find funding for the museum and to maintain a collection of more than 1,000 artifacts without the dedicated help of experienced curators. But grants and donations were especially hard to come by in an economy that was bottoming out.

Her best intentions kept running headlong into the worst of circumstances. The museum, which in its last days was located in a narrow, two-story, hundred-year-old rowhouse at 2007 Vermont Ave. NW, lacked a proper heating and cooling system. The delicate clothes were at the mercy of Washington's humid summer days, and the oldest garments, those from the 1800s, had begun to fray. Studiously preserved paper records were squeezed into metal file cabinets, stacked on shelves and stored in cardboard boxes. Invaluable historical frocks were draped over flimsy wire hangers because there was no place else for them to be.

Knowing the status quo could not hold, Bailey began searching for a place that would not only accept the collection in its entirety, but would also give it the treatment she felt it warranted. She was determined that the collection not go into the hands of a private citizen only to end up locked in someone's vault. And she didn't want it to go into a scholarly research center, either -- doomed to climate-controlled storage and available to only a handful of approved academics.

"It had to be another museum, but not just any museum," Bailey says. When she heard that this institution, with its prominent position on the Mall and its sole focus on telling the African American story, was "really coming to fruition, I said, 'That's the place.' This museum is of a magnitude that it can do what I want to see done with this collection.

"They realize the significance of what they have and they've let me know that."

Hidden history

So much of the African American experience is stashed in basements and attics. That hidden history is in danger of being washed away by the enormity of another Katrina or even a trifling family rift.

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