In conversation with Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
Jill Lasersohn, TDJIFoundation board member and one of America’s pre-eminent collectors of antique textiles recently caught up with Kimberly Chrisman Campbell and was able to ask her a few questions…
Jill - Thank you so much for sharing your expertise of the material culture of France,England & America in the 18th c.! Much of the excitement of the past is hinged on overlooked details that reveal details of cultural life centuries ago so my first question to you is what period of 18th c France would you like to visit and whom would you like to spend a day with?! What would you ask? (Who would you be?)
Kimberly - I’d love to hang out in Paris in the late 1770s and 1780s—the period between the two Revolutions—and obviously my first stop would be Au Grand Mogol, Rose Bertin’s boutique. It would be fascinating to watch her work and interact with her customers—and, of course, to try on the clothes! We have mouth-watering descriptions and paintings of her clothes, but very little costume from that period actually survives, and there is rarely any way to connect what does survive to a specific maker or wearer.
One of the few surviving dresses by Rose Bertin in the "Visitors To Versailles" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April 16-July 29, 2018
Jill - Your background is art history - what came first, your love of paintings or costume?
Kimberly - Definitely costume. I actually majored in 18th-century literature in college, but I quickly realized that I was less interested in the rise of the novel than in the descriptions of what all the characters were wearing. I went to the Courtauld Institute of Art—the University of London’s art history branch—for graduate school not because I wanted to become an art historian but because Aileen Ribeiro taught dress history there. Art history is one of a few disciplines that encompass dress history; others include design history, anthropology, or museum studies. The methodologies are very different. Art historians originally became interested in dress as a way to date paintings, but it has evolved into a field in its own right.
Jill - Do you personally collect items from 18th c? If you won the lottery what would you purchase?
Kimberly - I collect pieces by a 20th-century designer I love named Chester Weinberg. And I have some nice 18th-century fashion magazines that I bought primarily because I wanted to use the plates in my book and it was cheaper to buy them than to license the images from a museum. But what I'd really love to have is an 18th-century uncut embroidered waistcoat panel. Though they were hand-embroidered, they were an early form of mass production, because they would be exported as flat textiles with all the pieces embroidered on a single length of fabric—collar, lapels, pocket flaps, button covers—then cut and sewn to the wearer’s measurements by a tailor, using additional fabric. Many examples of these panels ended up in the British National Archives because they were seized by customs officials as they came off the boat from France. I love the stories behind historic garments that were never worn.
Jill - What fascinates you the most about 18th c culture?
Kimberly - It’s so modern and recognizable in many ways, but also completely foreign at the same time. In fashion terms, it the pinnacle of human achievement without the benefit of industrialization. And it’s a time when women used fashion to express themselves very eloquently because they were barred from more traditional forms of social participation, like the government, the church, or the military.
Jill - How long had you been thinking about writing "Fashion Victims" [Kimberly’s latest book]? How did it come about? How long did it take?
Kimberly - It started out as my MA dissertation, then became my PhD dissertation, so I worked on it on and off for almost 20 years before it was actually published! In retrospect, I’m glad it took as long as it did, because it changed and grew and got better along the way, and the cost of the image rights came down significantly as more and more museums adopted open content policies. The high cost of licensing images is the number one barrier to publishing books on art and fashion, and it usually falls on the author—although the publisher assumes the printing costs, which are much higher for beautifully illustrated books. I was really fortunate to work with Yale University Press, which is the best in the business when it comes to art books, and the legendary editor/designer Gillian Malpass; the result was beyond anything I could have imagined.
Jill - In doing your research what bit of discovery surprised/intrigued you the most?
Kimberly - I’m a stickler for primary sources, so I was surprised and dismayed to find that a lot of myths and mistakes had been repeated over and over again, all because one secondary source got it wrong somewhere along the way. This is particularly true of anything relating to Marie-Antoinette, since her reputation has suffered a lot over the years. The ship-shaped headdress known as the coiffure à la Belle Poule is an obvious example. It’s often described as a silly and insensitive gaffe by Marie-Antoinette, but in fact it was a patriotic celebration of one of the early naval battles of the American Revolution—and there’s no evidence that Marie-Antoinette ever wore it, anyway!
Jill - Are you seeing any trends in the museum/university world in regards to Costume/Textile/Cultural History?
Kimberly - Lately menswear has been getting more attention, as have makers of dress and textiles. Partly for environmental reasons, there has been a renewed focus on making, crafting, remaking, and recycling. This is part of a larger cultural conversation, not just limited to museums and universities. There is always going to be a need to go back to the basics and re-evaluate longstanding assumptions, like the conventional wisdom that you can’t do a menswear exhibition because it doesn’t survive in large enough quantities. At the same time, there are so many fascinating designers and fashion movements that have never been studied in depth.
Jill - When we think of Marie Antoinette we visualize a Queen swathed in heavy silk & lace but that wasn't always the reality - can you explain?
Kimberly - Marie-Antoinette is remembered as an unrepentant clotheshorse but she was a country girl at heart and really preferred to live simply. She hated the formality and strict etiquette of Versailles. She was constantly looking for ways around it, and it was her disregard for luxury rather than her lavish spending that got her in the most trouble. She tried to relax court ceremony and introduced new forms of court dress that were less expensive, more comfortable, and more in tune with fashion compared to the traditional grand habit. She spent as much time as possible in the rustic elegance of the Petit Trianon and Le Hameau, and her portrait in a plain white cotton chemise gown and straw hat caused a scandal. Even though Madame Du Barry, the comtesse de Provence, and other ladies had been painted in the same garb, it was considered inappropriate for the queen.
Jill - In "Fashion Victims" there are references to the wearing of cottons in the Peasant Style (la paysanne) and we know that Oberkampf's toile production was visible not only to Marie Antoinette but to all of the court & visitors as they traveled to and from Paris in their carriages that overlooked Oberkampfs drying fields...
Kimberly - The pastoral ideal promoted by Rousseau and other 18th-century authors and philosophers took over pop culture, including the theater, landscape design, art, and fashion. Oberkampf prints showing the pleasures and pastimes of country life both reflected that trend and promoted it.
Jill - The Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting "Visitors to Versailles" this week. TDJIFoundation
raised the funds for Madame Oberkampf's silk brocade court gown that she wore while being presented before Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette at Versailles. The gown is a living fossil. You are speaking at the MET on April 22 - can you give us a preview of what you will be talking about?
Kimberly - I’ll be talking about what to wear to the court of Versailles. I don’t know about you, but that would be my first question if I received an invitation! Of course, people went to Versailles for different reasons—as tourists, as diplomats, or as invited guests—and the dress code varied depending on your status. But the rules for each were pretty clear; it wasn’t like today, when you might get an invitation with nonsensical instructions like “creative black tie” or “business formal.”
Jill - You've been active with The Getty Museum,The Huntington Museum, Bard & the MET - what are you currently working on??
Kimberly - I have a new book project underway for Running Press, called Worn On This Day. It’s a day-by-day look at clothes worn on significant days in history, like the Brooks Brothers coat Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was killed, and a watch worn by a sailor on the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor. It explores why garments survive or achieve iconic status, and how they shape our collective memory. It won’t be out until fall 2019, but you can get a preview on Twitter at @WornOnThisDay.
Jill - Can you share with us one of your most rewarding experiences?
Kimberly - After my book came out, an art dealer contacted me with pictures of a surviving coiffure à la Belle Poule! It was one of those things that I was one hundred percent sure was out there somewhere—probably miscataloged in some regional French maritime museum—but I never thought I’d find. So that was vindicating.
Jill - Your top five museums.......and the museum on your wish list?
Kimberly - That’s so hard! For permanent collections of costume that I’ve actually had the opportunity to visit, the list has to start with the V&A and the Met, then I might add the Palais Galliera, the Livrustkammaren, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Palazzo Pitti Costume Gallery, and the Historic Royal Palaces Court Dress Collection. But some of the best costume exhibitions I’ve ever seen have been at the Imperial War Museum and the Gemeentmuseum, and then there are museums I love that don’t collect costume at all, like the Wallace Collection, Waddesdon Manor, the Musées Carnavalet and Cognacq-Jay, the palaces of Charlottenburg and Drottningholm, and the Silberkammer in Vienna, which is essentially the emperor’s dishes and table linens (and it’s fascinating). The Hermitage and the Kyoto Costume Institute are on my bucket list; I’d also love to visit Biltmore, the State Historical Museum in Moscow, and the Danish royal collections.
Jill - What are you reading this evening?
Kimberly - I review books for several publications, so I always have a stack of gorgeous fashion history books I should be reading; right now the pile includes both Mod New York and Fashioning the Early Modern. But I read mysteries for fun, so it might end up being the new Elizabeth George depending on my mood.
All textile images from the Jill K Lasersohn private collection