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The SAIC Fashion Resource Center

Gillion Carrara
Adjunct Professor, Departments of Art History, Theory, and Criticism and Fashion Design, and Director, Fashion Resources Center, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Presentation Slides

Established in 1987, the Fashion Resource Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago maintains and continues to shape a unique, predominantly late twentieth- and twenty-first-century study collection of innovation and avant-garde fashion.

The collection is noncirculating. One hundred students enrolled in the three years of core classes and more than four hundred between core and elective classes. Grad students, faculty and guests, as well as students of the entire interdisciplinary school community are invited to handle and examine representative garments, accessories, and footwear for a critical exploration of design and construction. We demonstrate how to examine objects, turn certain garments inside out carefully, even upside down for the inquisitive to further understand inventive and challenging constructions and hidden design elements.

The Fashion Resource Center currently maintains a collection of five hundred ready-to-wear and few couture designer garments, menswear, occupational garments and uniforms, knitwear, accessories, and footwear. Collections have been reserved purposely to highlight elements of construction such as an ideal gusset or gore, plus garments of intriguing surface manipulations such as faux fur, acrylic teeth, or starched flower blossoms.

Structural materials and woven and nonwoven yard lengths inform students of the possibilities of hang, drape, volume, and sculpture. A collection of muslins has been made up with careful attention from commercial couture patterns such as the tulip skirt by Charles James.

Each garment or object is identified with a catalogue number and name and date. Museum terminology is not mentioned or encouraged, such as the word "deaccession," since the center is not a designated museum nor a library but has drawn from the practices of institutional organization. Grant writing is the activity of the office of development. Programming symposia and lecture series are the pleasure and privilege of the FRC staff.

Included in one of the two rooms measuring 636 by 377 square feet are 2,800 books, 25 design magazine subscriptions, forecast publications, 1,000 vintage fashion magazines from 1890 to the present, and support references of relevance such as interviews and runway DVDs that chronicle designer lives and presentations.

Additional instruction features ready-to-wear and couture presentations and histories, menswear shows, student runway shows, installations of dress as metaphor, student competitions, and technical instruction such as shoe building or millinery hat blocking.

Copies of Dress, Textile & Text and Fashion Theory are cataloged, as are dictionaries and encyclopedias. Samples of vintage fabrics from near-disintegrating garments and commercial trade show fabric samples are organized by content identification. Recently, "new material" samples have been shelved for examination and direct order by students who have considered the materials for individual sculptural manipulations, particularly of note since the school's master of design program Fashion, Body & Garment does not necessarily consider a garment as dress but as a vehicle of expression.

These resources combine to provide the visitor with an educational environment where one can research and gain insight into the progressive achievements in the world of fashion.

Not one object in the two rooms exists unless it has a raison d'etre—either in a course syllabus, individual inquiry, or project development. The Center exists as a support of the school's philosophy. In twenty-three years, faculty and students of various disciplines have advised and requested services and access, therefore it is kept au courant as one of the school's four Special Collections.

The Center specializes in examples of challenging design that also reconfigure the idea of beauty and modernity. Garments from Japanese, Belgian, French, Italian, and American designers illustrate the evolution of contemporary dress: Marc Le Bihan, Gary Graham, Junya Watanabe, Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier, Elber Albaz, Isabel Toledo, Hussein Chalayan and Azzedine Alaia, McCardell, Cashin, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Garments are sought as donations for their innovation and thought-provoking details, such as a cleverly placed closure and the use of nontraditional materials. I am a firm believer in the Mies Van Der Rohe dictate that "less is more." By less, we intend on acquiring only signature garments from influential designers such as Galliano, Miyake, Chalayan, and Watanabe, Rucci, and Toledo.

Designer recognition is brought to student attention such as a prominent logo or repetitive challenges and rebellious, even riotous objectives.

Augmenting the modern aspects of the collection are vintage lingerie and foundation garments that were not only instrumental in reshaping the ideals of the female form but now provide insight into modern lingerie revival and our perception of public and private dress.

A small selection of vintage garments recall exquisite craftsmanship and the weightlessness of fine dressmaking and innovative aesthetic dress.

To complement the garments and accessories, the Center catalogs not only historical texts but also numerous publications from present-day authors discussing extreme textiles, fashion concepts, architecture and product design, dress in installation, manuals on process and as metaphor in literature. To expand the scope of dress research, exhibition catalogues are shelved, highlighting presentations of historical and contemporary dress and the impact of dress in shaping culture.

It is essential that in conversation, an instructor can reach for a publication while relating the construction of a garment placed on the examination table, dressed on a form, or suspended from a hanger.

Available to students is a large collection of designer "look books" and catalogues from designers arranged by season, as well as a vertical file of articles and biographies on "emerging" designers clipped from magazines and newspapers. Many of the daily maintenance duties are managed by museum volunteers since our operational budget does not allow for employment other than a staff of two with a graduate student on limited work hours.

The open door invites students to the two rooms to peruse shelves and respectfully handle and investigate. No gloves, no sign-in form. Other than a schedule of appointments and meetings, student are free to explore and question. Staff volunteers do not allow social interaction but assist in focused investigation and discussion as pertaining to materials and assignments. With supervision, students dress and re-dress the various styled dress forms.

There is no exhibition policy since time, space and budget are lacking, to a great extent. On occasion we staff have been invited to enrich an exhibition with garments from the collection. The budget  allowed the opportunity to borrow garments from other institutions to further illustrate our point of view, as was the case in the recent Learning Modern: Modernism in Chicago exhibition at the Sullivan Gallery that exhibited fashions by Claire McCardell as definition of design of the period.

Annually, correspondence is sent out to friends of the FRC; individuals, designers, retail store owners, and directors of other collections requesting consideration of specific donations. On occasion, garments are purchased. Artists who create garments are approached as are individuals for donations. We correspond with institutions understanding our collection policy for the modern and avant-garde. Individuals were asked for support to assist in organizing our first lecture series, "Behind the Seams," now an annual event of lecturers by authorities.

What the FRC provides is a depth for the study of changes in twentieth-century and twenty-first-century garment design, construction and theory, the social history of dress, gender, and identity and the relationship between contemporary dress and the visual arts.

As one student who frequents the Resource Center remarked, "I am continually captivated by the interrelationship of academic scholarship and the dreamlike fascination that fuels it."

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