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Valerie Steele’s deep contextual dives into the history of fashion set her apart from other academics and curators—two identities she embodies in equal parts. The chief curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (since 1997 and 2003, respectively), she has produced upwards of 25 exhibitions while also, over the past 15 years, leading the institution. No corner of fashion is out of bounds for the charismatic and multifaceted Steele. Past exhibition subjects have ranged from corsets to gothic fashion to queerness to the color pink. Writing, too, has been a major part of her unabating scholarship, as is evident in her authoring or co-authoring of nearly 30 books over the past few decades—the first of which, on fashion and eroticism, was a product of her final Ph.D. dissertation at Yale in the early ’80s.
For Steele, clothes aren’t just tangible garments—they’re the constant medium through which to better understand things like politics, psychology, sexuality, and time. (Perhaps not surprisingly, in 2012, Suzy Menkes of The New York Times dubbed her “the Freud of Fashion”—a moniker Steele relishes.) Her rigorous, vibrant exhibitions—and her career as a whole—are the ultimate clapback to academics who once snubbed her studies as frivolous. Her next Museum at FIT showcase, “Paris: The Capital of Fashion” (on view from Sept. 6, 2019, to Jan. 4, 2020), collects roughly 100 objects that exemplify the “cultural construction” of the French city, from the 18th century to the present, contextualizing the evolution of artisanal haute couture into big business.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Steele and Spencer Bailey discuss her ongoing obsession with the city of Paris, academia’s continued distaste for fashion as a subject of worthy inquiry, her circuitous path to FIT (she dropped out of school at 15 and lived in a “lesbian-feminist commune” before attending Dartmouth for undergrad and Yale for her Ph.D.), and why luxury menswear is on the rise.