We are happy to bring you this interview by Ariele Elia, a recent graduate of the program, with alumna Clare Sauro. Sauro is curator of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. In the past she supervised the Accessories Collection and worked as Assistant Curator in the Costume Collection at the Museum at FIT where she also contributed to several exhibitions including The Tailor’s Art and Arbiters of Style: Women at the Forefront of Fashion . In 2005 she co-curated the exhibition Dutch at the Edge of Design: Fashion and Textiles from the Netherlands.
Ariele Elia: What is your position at the Drexel University Historic Costume Collection?
Clare Sauro: I am the only person employeed full time in the collection so I am primarily the curator, but I also serve as collections manager, registrar, and director in some capacities. My education at FIT, having to take basic conservation classes and registration classes, have paid off tremendously. I find myself having to do all of those functions on a regular day so I am not a traditional curator in that I have a collection and I put on an exhibition and interpret it for the public, I also do many other things.
AE: What can you tell about the collection?
CS: I have been here at Drexel a little over two years and when I arrived I was told we had about 7,000 objects and a good portion of those had been cataloged, I have since discovered we have a lot more than that and the cataloging is inconsistent. I am discovering new things all the time. We have some wonderful things from the early 20th century, in particular the teens, which are incredibly rare in museum collections because of the way garments were constructed. Often you find very light fabrics like chiffon or tulle with something heavy like wool or beading or velvet and therefore you get dresses that disintegrate. I am constantly surprised at how many objects we have from this time period. We even have a nice assortment of dresses from the mid teens, the war time crinoline period which is generally underrepresented in collection. Last summer I discovered a child’s riding habit from about 1799, I have never seen one of those before. I asked around but I haven’t heard of anyone else who has one. This collection is full of surprises and I look forward to being able to have a full inventory, it seems promising. Stay tuned more to come.
AE: Tell us about the online gallery
CS: It is called the Drexel Digital Museum Project . It was created for a funded free-standing project years ago, and contains objects from the collection as well as loans for specific exhibitions. I find that problematic and confusing. In the future, as we move to a new space, the collection will be more organized and my goal is to get an inventory done, resulting in a searchable database.
AE: As a curator what are some of the challenges you face?
CS: There is never enough time to do everything you want to do. The physical demands of taking care of the collections takes you away from doing the academic research and the writing that you would like to do. Finding that balance is difficult. I rely heavily on students which also can be quite a juggling act [watching them and managing them] and then they go on and get real jobs and graduate, I am happy for them but it means I have to retrain people.
AE: What was your path from graduating to where you are now?
CS: When I was still in graduate school I was lucky enough to get a part time job working at the Museum at FIT. I was hired to help with photographing new objects that came into the collection. I got to see a huge amount of garments and did dressing. In that time I also volunteered at the Brooklyn Museum, and I took contract work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was also at the American Museum of the Moving Image for a little bit. It took me about two years to get a full time job after graduating. I think that’s fairly typical. Once I got into FIT I took a full time job in the registrar’s department at the receiving room, tagging new objects, packing up things for deaccession, it was a whole process of first in last out. I learned quite a bit and developed skills such as dealing with lenders for exhibitions and building relations with donors. From there I moved onto Curatorial Assistant and up to Assistant Curator.
AE: How did you get to Drexel?
CS: Well I heard rumors about how wonderful the collection was. I knew it was currently in a state of needing a great deal of attention and I think it is my nature to root for the underdog. I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to bring something back. I enjoy doing a little bit of everything, but some days I want to clone myself to do work. Part of the job was also to teach History of Costume, which I have found I absolutely adore. It was a bit of a gamble, but I am glad I followed my instincts.
AE: When you were in graduate school what were your interests?
CS: I was focused mainly on American fashion in the 30s and 40s. I was very interested in that period specifically American fashion because I felt it was neglected, my classmates were very couture based and 19th century based. They like Worth, the 19th century and post war couture. So me being kind of arbitrary I decided I would go with the Americans, ready to wear and also film costumes. I wrote my master’s thesis on Bernard Newman, who did the film costumes for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He started out in the couture salon at Bergdorf Goodman and then went to ready to wear, a study of his career points to what was going on in the American fashion industry at the time, and it meshed my interests together. My advice to graduate students is make sure you really like the topic of your thesis because it will really follow you. Make sure you really love what you do, you have to be tenacious, if you don’t love it you are just going to wear yourself out.