Q&A with Vintage Fashion Historian Heather Vaughan

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In the world of vintage fashion, there seems to be three camps: the wearers, the collectors, and the scholars. The wearers and the collectors can be the same person – I wear the vintage I collect that is in my size and that is flattering for me. But the scholars are usually in a very well educated world of their own. They study and write about fashion history in such great depth – curating museum collections, publishing articles in scholarly journals. And yes, some even hold PhDs in fashion.

Heather Vaughan is one of these supremely intelligent fashion addicts. Her addiction to revolutionary and historically important designers such as Schiaparelli and Adrian have led her down a path of study where jobs are scarce, but passion for fashion is abundant. Meet fashion historian, curator, and writer, Heather Vaughan.

heather-smiling1-224x300.jpgDebutanteClothing: Being a scholar of fashion isn’t an obvious career path. What led you here?

Heather Vaughan: My beginnings as a historian of fashion began with an interest in theatrical costuming and script analysis as an undergraduate. I had a passion for the ‘why’ of the costume and how it reflected character. It was the basis of my interest in the socio-cultural forces behind clothing and dress. Linked with that was my interest in history and how history has changed the socio-cultural forces that affect fashion choices of the individual. I came to examine why it was that I loved ‘vintage’ clothing so much and found that really, it was about these ‘things’ being objects of and from the past: made, purchased and worn by specific people at a specific time. The object as evidence of history was the theoretical framework that drew me in and kept me interested. In particular my love of writing about this subject is what keeps me wedded to it.

DC: Are there schools or programs of study you would recommend to an aspiring fashion scholar/historian?

HV: I am asked this question frequently, so I’m glad to have it asked here. It really does depend on what you hope to do with the degree after you use it, and where you want to do it. For me, New York University’s Visual Culture: Costume Studies program was perfect for me. It was heavy in history, art, and museum studies. There are many other programs that focus on other elements: fashion industry trending, textile history, theatrical costuming, etc. I will say however, that some of the best programs (both PhD and M.A.) seem to be in the United Kingdom: the Courtauld, and the Royal College of Art to name just a few. Others in the US include F.I.T., Bard, Oregon State University, Kent State, and the University of Minnesota.

I do want to caution others considering this as a career path: this is not a growing field. Jobs are few and far between, so if you are considering one of these programs I would strongly recommend talking to a graduate of the given program to find out what their experience was, and what their job prospects have been. Above all, do your homework. Read Anne Hollander, Aileen Ribeiro, Valerie Steele, Lou Taylor, Christopher Breward, JoAnn Eicher, Roland Barthes (the Fashion System), and Fred Davis to figure out where your interests lie. Or better yet – read what’s been written by the professors at a given school to see what their slant is. It can go a long way to getting you to the best place.

DC: How does a writer and historian differ from other fashion journalism roles?

HV: That’s a good question. For me it’s very clear – I don’t write freelance articles for newspapers or magazines. I write long in-depth papers for academic journals and conferences. I also really avoid ‘current trends’ as much as possible-something that is often the focus of fashion journalists. I’m a firm believer that you can’t really see a trend clearly until it IS history. Journalists write for the sake of disseminating the most current, up-to-date state of the fashion world. They write what I think of as ‘fast fashion’ – what’s happening now, tomorrow, in the future. I like to think I write ‘slow fashion’ – contemplative academic pieces that may take a while and lots of thinking and research to put together. That’s not to say fashion journalists don’t do research or think – they just have less time to do it in.

DC: What is a typical day in a fashion historian’s day look like?

HV: Ha – well, I am not a typical fashion historian, so for me it’s a nine to five job in an unrelated field, with most of my ‘fashion historian’ hat time in the evenings. Computer research is ever-more a part of my day. A good number of academic databases (historic newspaper articles and photographs are more and more available online). There is the odd day with a trip to a library or museum to do additional research. Recently, I made a trip out to the Library of Congress for a week to do research for a book project. There are occasional trips to conferences to present papers as well. More typically, an historian associated with a specific museum will involve cataloging, care of collections, research, preparing for exhibitions and other similar tasks.

DC: What is the best part of your career? The worst?

HV: The best part is the objects. Far and away, if I get to examine and explore a the seams, construction and design of an actual piece I am a very happy camper. Being an independent makes those opportunities rare but incredibly valuable. The worst is not having enough time in the day to do all the research that I want to. If I could spend all day, every day doing historical or object research I would be extremely happy.

schiaparelii-va-126x300.jpg schiaparelli-shocking-pink-199x300.jpg
Schiaparelli gowns

DC: When it comes to research and study, which are your favorite fashion icons?

HV: It’s hard to reconcile those two ideas – because to me, the most interesting research and study is done on the people who are not icons of fashion design (necessarily). I like to know and understand designers who may not have been given the amount of recognition that perhaps they should have. I like to shed light on portions of history that have not yet been studied. For example, I recently began some research on a little studied San Francisco based designer who worked between 1880 and 1918. She was very well known to the inner circle of San Francisco’s high society of that era, but no one today would call her an icon.

That said, my favorite designers would have to be Elsa Schiaparelli, Gilbert Adrian, Philip Tracey, Roger Vivier, Andre Perugia and Alexander McQueen. (I like designers who bring a strong artistic sense to their designs).

DC: A common complaint on reality fashion shows is that aspiring designers do not know their fashion history. How important is it for current designers to know fashion history?

HV: Given the popularity of Marc Jacobs, who borrows constantly from fashion history, I would suggest that it is in their own best interests to know their fashion history. It’s like sampling from a song that you don’t know all the words to: you could be missing something big, or saying something you don’t intend to. Learning from those who came before you is hugely important in any field, and those who want to get ahead should learn from histories mistakes.

Knowing art history is also hugely helpful for designers, and museums are a wonderful source of inspiration for any kind of design work. As an aside, I believe that Zac Posen interned at the Met’s Costume Institute to get a better handle on fashion history. Knowing how Vionnet and Madame Gres mastered the bias cut, and how YSL transitioned from the strict Dior hourglass silhouette to the more ‘relaxed’ trapeze line is important for any young new designer to learn.

DC: Which current designers do you feel will be worthy of study in the future?

HV: I’ve already mentioned Alexander McQueen, but I also think Galliano, Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, Philip Lim as well as Isabel and Rueben Toledo . Many of these designers already have a long and distinguished history in the fashion world, so its hard for me to think of them as not already having been studied.

DC: Every decade has a look that epitomizes the era. What do you feel will be the “look” of the 2000s?

HV: Unfortunately, all that comes to mind are things I have disliked about the 2000s: leggings; Uggs; high-waisted jeans; and oversize aviator sunglasses.

DC: You are a regular contributor to Wornthrough.com, a blog about fashion history. What other plans are on your horizon?

HV: Beginning in October, I will be focusing fairly intently on the research and writing for a book project combining the study of both fashion and costume design in the 1920s and 1930s in Hollywood and New York. I’ll also be continuing my work for Worn Through and the Costume Society of America’s Western Region.

Check out Heather’s writing at wornthrough.com and find out what she’s working on at her website FashionHistorian.net

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1 LauraKitty { 08.28.09 at 10:05 am }

This was great! It’s always interesting to read the point of view of people who do the same thing as you.

2 Monica { 08.28.09 at 1:04 pm }

Great post and fabulous to see Heather interviewed! I love reading interviews with people in the field!!
I should clarify that WornThrough.com isn’t about fashion history, but instead is actually about fashion scholarship, cultural and other styles of all time periods, and sometimes we write about history–particularly with Heather’s valuable contributions. That said, the academic side of the industry is growing in a huge way, just not the other areas as quickly. So, if one does go into the field, as Heather mentioned, it is important to consider that, since academia is one of the only areas actively hiring. Thankfully, there’s been lots of growth in that area in recent years and promises to have exponential growth in coming years! But the world of academia, museums, journalism, etc are all very different, so it really depends where ones interests are regarding job potential.
Fun interview and hope to see more!!

3 Monica { 08.28.09 at 1:12 pm }

Also, in addition to the schools Heather mentioned (including my Alma Matta Univ. Minn), students seeking domestic post-grad work in fashion history/culture could consider (depending on focus area) Ohio State, Univ Cal Davis, Iowa, Nebraska, UT Austin, either of the North Car. schools, and the new powerhouse is going to be Delaware. Give it a few years and It will be a dominant force. Reason for listing all of these = research professors and mentoring opportunities. In grad school, especially at the PhD level, it’s all about mentorship and who is teaching where and how that relates to what field you’re going into.

4 Sandra { 08.28.09 at 7:17 pm }

Laura – glad you liked it. Anything to add to all this great info?
Monica – thank you for correcting me on the focus of Wornthrough.com and for the additional information on schools.

5 Heather Vaughan { 08.29.09 at 11:16 am }

Monica may be right about Fashion Academia being a growing field (that is, teaching courses at the University level) and I should have clarified that this is not my area of focus. My interest is specifically in museum studies with a focus on the object (a field of study that is, at the moment, rather stagnant). Thanks for the opportunity Sandra!
Laura – tell us more about what you do and where you are!

6 Kristen { 09.08.09 at 4:40 pm }

History is so important. I would love to read more on fashion academia and articles from a historian’s point of view. Thanks for the great post!

7 Jeanne Suica { 09.09.09 at 10:26 am }

Thanks to both of you for such an interesting and informative post. Jeanne

8 Samira { 09.05.12 at 1:37 pm }

What about historical costuming? Does fashion history play a large role in sourcing accurate pieces for entertainment purposes (shows, films, etc)?

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