Associate Curator Christina Johnson recently traveled to the Fashion Museum in Bath, England, where she spent a week researching museum founder Doris Langley Moore, thanks to receiving a travel grant from the Costume Society of America.
My interest in scholar, fashion collector, and museum founder Doris Langley Moore began when I was a young girl discovering the world of fashion history. I stumbled upon her 1949 book, The Woman in Fashion, on one of my many treks to the library. The book includes photographs of Moore’s famous friends wearing her private collection of antique clothing and accessories. I was transfixed by her beautiful styling of the models and couldn’t get enough of her erudite writing.
Little did I know I would have ample opportunity to ‘get to know’ Doris in my work at the FIDM Museum. Just over a decade ago, we received a donation of nineteenth-century clothing from the estate of Helen Larson, a Whittier, California-based collector. I recognized some of the items had been photographed in The Woman in Fashion, including this Victorian silk brocade gown. I had a hunch that Helen must have purchased these items directly from Doris. But I couldn’t prove it at that time.
In 2010, the FIDM Museum began a fundraising campaign to acquire the remainder of Helen Larson’s private collection—The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection. In addition to amazing garments and accessories, the collection includes Helen Larson’s personal collecting archive—letters, notes, auction records, and photographs. Poring over the archive, I was so excited to find hundreds of letters written between Helen and Doris spanning over 20 years, tracking not only hundreds of purchases, but a relationship that developed from matter-of-fact business transactions into a treasured friendship. And yes, they proved Helen purchased almost all of the garments and accessories presented in The Woman in Fashion!
I was the grateful recipient of the 2014 Costume Society of America Travel Research Grant, which I used to support a week of research at the Fashion Museum in Bath, founded by Doris Langley Moore in 1963 as The Museum of Costume. Doris donated a collection of historic fashion to the city of Bath with the understanding that council members would utilize the city’s recently remodeled Assembly Rooms to house a costume museum. Although she was never officially the curator, she continued to acquire donations for the museum into the late 1970s. Letter from Doris Langley Moore to Museum of Costume staff member, 15 Aug 1969. Courtesy of the Fashion Museum, Bath & North East Somerset Council.
Thanks to Fashion Museum Manager Rosemary Harden and Collections Assistant Elaine Uttley, I had full access to the Museum’s institutional archives, and focused on letters written by and to Doris, object accession cards from the original donation, object and installation photographs, newspaper clippings, and exhibition files. I found this wonderful Picture Post magazine, with the cover girl wearing our 1850s gown!
The magazine dates to an era when people did not understand the conservation issues arising from wearing antique fashion intended for preservation. The article includes a portrait of Doris cataloging items in the collection.
I know what it’s like to plan exhibitions—in addition to the research involved, when I curate a project, I spend hours designing the space, selecting mounts, and arranging objects to tell a story. There is usually a lot of scratch paper involved, more messy handwriting than I care to admit, and also doodling! Doris did the same thing for her first installation at The Museum of Costume, as can be seen in this notebook she kept to document the process. The different mannequin groups are being arranged by theme on this page.
These documents are not digitized yet, so I spent a lot of time with my digital camera as I looked through the papers, taking photos to be carefully read over later.
Are you interested to know who took this photo of me hard at work? FIDM Museum Curator Kevin Jones, who accompanied me on the trip and was an amazing research assistant! There’s no way I could have made my way through all of the materials without him. Thanks!
Finding mannequins with bodies and demeanors appropriate for eighteenth-and nineteenth-century fashion can be challenging. In an era in which the specialized Kyoto mannequin had not been invented, Doris resorted to utilizing period partial-wax mannequins, as can be seen in this newspaper article with 1890s wax figures.
Doris Langey Moore had a brilliant mind and a dynamic personality that came across loud and clear in her many letters. But historic fashion was only one of her many fascinations: she was also interested in the theatre, was a jewelry collector, novelist, and a well-known Lord Byron scholar (she even married on his grave!). She brought curiosity and passion to all of her projects, qualities I aspire to bring to a long-term project I am embarking upon: her biography.