Valerie Steele is director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she has organized more than two dozen exhibitions since 1997, including The Corset: Fashioning the Body; Gothic: Dark Glamour; A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk; Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color; and Paris, Capital of Fashion. She is also the author or editor of more than 25 books, including Paris Fashion, Women of Fashion, Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, The Corset, The Berg Companion to Fashion, and. Fashion Designers A-Z: The Collection of The Museum at FIT. In addition, she is founder and editor in chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, the first scholarly journal in Fashion Studies.
How does the current crisis impact the relationship to clothing and fashion?
The pandemic is a world-historical event, much like a world war, and we usually assume that such events “cause” big changes in fashion. However, world wars and pandemics are actually more likely to accelerate changes that have already begun. The global fashion system was already “broken” — and COVD-19 only escalated existing problems with overproduction, struggling retailers, independent designers going out of business, etc. It’s been many years since Lagerfeld said that wearing sweatpants was a sign of giving up. Everyone is in sweatpants now. Designers and stores are going bankrupt. Unemployed people can’t afford to go shopping.
How does/can fashion play its individual expression and liberation role in our changing societies?
Fashion will survive, because the impulse to make things special – to decorate oneself – seems to be hard-wired in human beings. Fashion is not just a commodity – it can play an important role as a means of self-expression and as a sign of unity.
Can you mention a piece of clothing, a collection, or an image that would embody fashion special role in 2020 for you?
I’d choose pictures of people marching for Black Lives Matter.