Black Fashion Museum collection finds a fine home with Smithsonian

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010; E01

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.

Ever since 2005, when Lonnie Bunch III was appointed director of the Smithsonian's soon-to-be-constructed 19th museum, he has been scouring the crawl spaces of this country for the garments, the tools, the furnishings that will make the past real. His shorthand, the question that he quietly asks himself as he figures out how to tell a complicated tale of a people's struggles and triumphs, is simple: "What would make Uncle Joe care?"

Lois Alexander Lane's life's work has provided Bunch with a multitude of powerful answers.

The clothes she assembled and preserved speak with the warmth and quirky informality of a scrapbook. She collected Holder's whimsical, paillette-drenched costumes from "The Wiz," for which he won a Tony Award in 1975. She saved the delicate handiwork of anonymous seamstresses who fashioned white christening gowns for their beloved after duties for white clients were complete. She preserved a simple, roughly wrought bonnet and dress -- black with white stripes -- made and worn by a slave.

Her collection included costumes used by iconic performers such as the broad-shouldered singer Pearl Bailey, as well as the modest dress that Parks, the diminutive civil rights activist, was making for herself when she refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.

Parks's pretty frock comes in a yellow and brown floral print. The dress has three pleats, long sleeves and it wraps at the waist. The style is unremarkable, as is its construction. Only its provenance makes it noteworthy, and with that comes the realization that its demure, ladylike lines tell us about the complicated character of the woman who was making it -- and who ultimately never wore it. For Parks surely had a spine of steel.

Lane also collected an admirable array of dresses by Lowe, perhaps the most famous black dressmaker of the pre-civil-rights era. For years, Lowe worked in Florida creating gowns for the trousseaux of socialites. She saved $19,000 and headed to New York City. There, she made gowns for du Ponts and Roosevelts, Posts and Rockefellers. She also designed Jacquelyn Bouvier's wedding dress for her 1953 marriage to John F. Kennedy.

Lowe adorned her clothes with sweet appliques, like the handmade pink roses sprinkled across the full skirt of an ivory-colored gown that is in Lane's collection. The dress is sleeveless, with an open, U-shaped back. But it also has an infrastructure that provides both support and modesty. The media dubbed it the "American Beauty" dress.

When Lowe died in 1981 at 82, she was in debt. The Kennedy wedding helped to sour her fortunes. The dresses for the wedding party had to be remade when a pipe burst in her workroom and Lowe assumed the financial burden of replacing them.

"I can tell a story of creativity, class and aspiration, work and labor" through the lives of these women, Bunch says. "Here's this whole notion of seamstresses who used their work to move into a different sphere. Seamstresses knew whites the way a millworker didn't. They provided bridges of possibility."

Bound up in the clothes are lessons in perseverance, snippets of wisdom passed down through the generations.

"My grandmother used to say, 'Don't go out on the street looking the way they expect you to look,' " says Bunch. "It was a way of protecting what you had achieved and projecting what you haven't achieved yet."

Starting in Harlem

Bunch, 57, is a stocky black man with close-cut salt-and-pepper hair, a full gray beard and wire-rim glasses. A New Jersey native, he has spent much of his life working in museums from California to Chicago.

Because he is a museum director without a museum, his office is in a squat glass building off L'Enfant Plaza. Large tomes on history and art fill the seventh-floor space. A construction timeline hangs on one wall and in 2015, when the museum is scheduled to open, Bunch has given himself written instructions to give "thanks" and "rest." At the moment, however, he is in the midst of a sprint with five more years to go.

Joyce Bailey's donation has put a little more wind at his back. The Black Fashion Museum was originally established in Harlem on West 126th Street in the shadow of a nondescript office tower that now famously houses the William J. Clinton Foundation. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was a more precarious place. Harold Koda came calling in 1992 and Lane kindly warned her visitor, who at the time was a curator from the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, to "leave early because it was getting dark."

Koda had been sent by the few black designers working on Seventh Avenue. He was organizing a show about hip-hop style, which was just coming to the fore, and he was interested in the influence that black youth were having on the broader fashion dialogue. But he arrived in Harlem to find a bigger story. The exhibition Koda had planned turned into a tribute to the Black Fashion Museum.

"Despite the experience of slavery, there was still a sense of personal pride and self-presentation," says Koda, who is now the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute curator in charge. "To hear of a slave having a really beautiful cape doesn't surprise me. Even if it was just calico, she would have still made something that said, 'I'm worthy.' In a context where it's among your peers, you're going to show it. You can't suppress that."

Lane had done something that the great costume collections in the United States had not. She focused on storytelling and cultural connections. The Met, for instance, has an altogether different agenda. Its mission has been to, first, create a timeline of fashion history and, second, to express that timeline through masterworks. Its collection is dominated by haute couture and high-end ready-to-wear. And its donors have mostly been privileged white women who traveled to Paris for their wardrobes and who replaced them after only a season.

Bailey never considered giving her mother's collection to the Costume Institute. "I wanted it to be someplace focused on the history and culture of African Americans, as opposed to any other place. I wanted that focus because my mother always wanted to make a contribution to the race. You don't hear that much anymore."

Until the creation of the Museum of African American History and Culture, "there was no place that could have preserved the integrity of the idea," Koda says.

Stitches in time

Lois K. Alexander Lane was an African American Southerner, born in Little Rock in 1916. She believed that when a lady faced the public she should do so wearing a hat and gloves and carrying a handbag that matched her shoes. She was 5-3, with a slender build that filled out as she got older. She had wavy black hair streaked with gray, brown eyes and a charismatic smile.

She loved fashion and always wanted to be a designer. That was a heartbreaking dream for a black woman in her day and she ended up coming north to Baltimore and then Washington, where she worked for the federal government. Over the years, she married three times and had one child.

She spent 30 years with the government, eventually moving to New York in the 1960s and leaving young Joyce behind with the child's grandmother. Lane had big plans. While she kept her day job, she also opened a dressmaking school in Harlem, wrote a book about black designers, ran two clothing boutiques and designed her own clothes.

Her accomplishments were seeded by an admonishment. She had been told -- often and flatly -- that African Americans had not made significant contributions to fashion; they were not designers. She knew that couldn't be right if only because she knew something about her own family. Lane's grandmother was 13 years old when slavery was abolished and she knew that on plantations, the slaves assigned to work indoors were responsible for making clothes for the family that owned them. Aren't those women, creating garments by hand, inspired by their own imagination, designers of a sort?

"She went on TV and radio asking people to go into their attics and trunks to donate clothes to her because she was going to open a museum," Bailey explains. "Some people were very interested. They wanted their story told; they wanted people to know what their mother and grandmother did.

"Others just wanted to get rid of old clothes."

Bailey is standing at the corner of Constitution Avenue NW and 14th Street. The Washington Monument rises up behind her back and the National Museum of American History sits just over her right shoulder. If all goes according to plan, the museum that she had been hoping and praying for will open its doors here on these five grassy acres of gently sloping land.

While Bailey's mother was a slender fashion plate, the daughter, 66, is tall, with broad shoulders, a classic bob and a pragmatic style. "I'm not my mom. I have to tell everyone that because they look at me and say, 'Uh . . .' "

She wears a pair of brown trousers and a pleated white blouse. Her black shoes look comfortable; her efficient shoulder bag is black, to match her shoes. She isn't a fashion-conscious woman, but she remains her mother's daughter. Her jacket was custom-made: ivory with a front panel made of mud cloth found amid her mother's belongings.

Bailey is a native Washingtonian who, after retiring from her teaching position at McKinley Technology High School, indulges her love of history and museums. She is a Civil War reenactor, part of a group of a dozen or so ladies -- all black except one -- who travel to schools and festivals telling the stories of black women during the War between the States.

Bailey's Civil War character is Elizabeth Keckley, who was dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. She chose the role after her mother asked her to do some digging into Keckley's background for the museum. Bailey became fascinated with the former slave who bought her freedom along with that of her son, thanks to her earnings and connections as a seamstress. Bailey's mission, in retirement, is to teach young people about this country's past and to ensure that the lives of long-gone black folks are treated with respect. That's what her mother wanted, too.

So much to do

"The Black Fashion Museum Collection," as it is called, is now at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute in Suitland. It's part of a sprawling complex of storage facilities and research laboratories where textile experts can analyze fibers, dyes and decorations in order to date garments. The dazzling campus of low-rise buildings has so much high-tech gadgetry and "CSI"-style goings-on that it served as a setting for murder in Dan Brown's novel "The Lost Symbol."

It will take years and millions of dollars before the entire collection has been processed, catalogued, researched and readied for exhibition. It took a week for a textile expert just to hand-clean the roses on Lowe's "American Beauty." Ultimately, it will total upward of $20,000 to preserve and exhibit that one dress, and it's in relatively good condition, says Michele Gates Moresi, the museum's curator of collections.

"Textiles are one of the most expensive collections to maintain," she says. But "we see it as a major responsibility; there's so much more to be discovered there."

Last year, Bailey sold the old museum space on Vermont Avenue. The house had been in her family for 50 years, but it needed major renovations and she didn't have the money. It's now a private residence.

She misses being able to lead tourists through the museum, particularly the ones that were visiting from far-flung places like Israel and Japan. She misses being the caretaker of her mother's dream. But she is also relieved.

Bailey is not one to get sentimental -- at least not in public, not about the future and not about the past. Perhaps not about anything. She hands out Gideons New Testaments, but she does not proselytize with ardor. Her eyes do not well with tears when she recalls her mother's desires. And when asked to consider the day in 2015 when the museum finally opens, she says simply, "I'm looking forward to it."

Then, with her sensible shoes and practical handbag, she heads down the Mall.

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