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San Diego’s Sense Of Style On View In Balboa Park

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Aired 10/15/09

40 historical, high-fashion costumes worn by San Diego women from the late 19th century to the present are showcased at the Museum of San Diego History's "San Diego style" exhibit to honor the 20th anniversary of the museum's Costume Council. The SDHS's costume collection (7,000 pieces) is the state's second-largest.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When you think of clothing that reflects San Diego style, taffeta and satin are probably not the first things that come to mind, more like shorts and flip-flops, the standard uniform of the relaxed 21st century San Diego dress code. But a new exhibit at the San Diego Historical Society takes a longer view of what constitutes style in our city. The Historical Society has an impressive collection of fashions from the late 19th through the 20th centuries and 45 of those costumes are currently on display. Some dresses are exquisitely elaborate, others sleek and sophisticated, and all reflect the spirit of the passing decades. Joining me to discuss the exhibition, “San Diego Style,” are my guests. David Kahn, director of the San Diego Historical Society. David, welcome to These Days.

DAVID KAHN (Director, San Diego Historical Society): Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Tim Long. He’s curator of costumes at the Chicago History Museum and also the curator of the “San Diego Style” exhibit. Good morning, Tim.

TIM LONG (Curator of Costumes, Chicago History Museum): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Tim, before this exhibit started, you were asked to assess the historical society’s costume collection here in San Diego. I’m wondering, what do you look for when you’re assessing the quality of a costume collection?

LONG: Well, first, we were basically just doing an overview of the collection. We went through hundreds of boxes filled with pieces dating back to the late 18th century. And at first it was just a general overview to see what type of objects the collection has, and so we were looking at shoes, we were looking at men’s wear, all types of accessories. But there were certain key pieces that continued to stand out and so that’s what was the sort of core idea of this style of exhibition, was basically letting the costume collection say what type of exhibition it could support.

CAVANAUGH: Now, David, I’ve read that the San Diego Historical Society’s costume collection has 7000 pieces…

KAHN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …but what does that mean? Does that include like accessories, gloves, hats, shoes…

KAHN: Yes, it does include all of those things. And when we say 7000, that’s an estimate since we’d really have to count all those small pieces to come up with a real number. But it’s a huge collection and one of the largest costume collections on the west coast actually. There are bigger collections back east. Tim’s collection in Chicago is much bigger than ours but for the west coast, our collection is really enormous. It’s one of the gems of the historical society and, really, of San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Now am I right in saying that this collection begins in the 19th century and spans the 20th? Or does it go back further?

KAHN: Oh, it actually does go back further. There is 18th century material. There’s early 19th century material. And this is kind of an interesting facet of the collection. The earlier material is not represented in this particular exhibit but there is quite a bit of this very early material and we speculate that it is in the collection because people from back east, when they moved to California, brought heirlooms with them, whether it was grandmother’s or great-grandfather’s or what have you, so there are terrific dresses, there’s a rare pair of men – 18th century men’s linen shirts in the collection. And it was interesting, I was at a event at the historical society not too long ago and got chatting with one of the members and she said, oh, you know, about 20 years ago we gave to the historical society an 18th century quilted Pennsylvania petticoat that my ancestors brought out here to San Diego. So right there was a demonstration as to how some of this wonderful material got here to the San Diego Historical Society.

CAVANAUGH: And when it’s not on display, David, where is it stored?

KAHN: Actually, at our headquarters in Balboa Park. We have about a 50,000 square foot building and there’s a very large storage area and the costume collection’s really bursting at the seams at this point. We’re out of space and have to figure out what to do to keep growing the collection.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Tim, your initial assessment of the collection, I’d like to get your impressions. What did you see when you came here to San Diego?

LONG: Well, I was originally just asked to do an overview and then as more and more of these key pieces were being found, at least for me, I was quite shocked. I had known of a couple of pieces from various exhibitions that the San Diego Historical Society had actually lent to. I saw a piece from the early 19th century on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art years back, and so I was aware that they had a costume collection but I was not aware that they had such a important collection with key pieces going back as early as the late 18th century and then slowly starting to get connected to San Diego with the pieces in the mid-to-early 19th century. And so these pieces, from evening wear to day dress to riding ensembles, and then mixing that with men’s wear and specific things related to key events in San Diego history, it was quite obvious within the first two days that there was enough there to support many strong exhibitions.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Timothy, how did you choose the 45 costumes in this exhibit?

LONG: Well, we wanted to focus on pieces of high style with key names, key designers, or pieces that represented a very specific style in fashion history. And then second, and perhaps more important, was that each piece in the exhibition was worn by a San Diego woman and so that was the more challenging part. Visually, there’s, you know, plenty of pieces in the collection that are exceptional pieces of fashion history, so that really wasn’t the problem. It was – Or, not problem, more challenge of finding the exact stories to tell because a lot of times the records will just say worn by Mrs. So-and-so but that doesn’t give you where she lived, how long she lived in San Diego or if she even lived in the city. And so that was a challenge where we used the collection of the San Diego Historical Society but then did the research outside of the museum as well. We contacted many people in the community, some that are still very active with the historical society, others that, you know, it was a little bit more of a challenge. We also used ancestry.com quite a lot to help try and figure out or try to find enough information that we could weave a paragraph of a biography on each of these women.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, and I’m going to ask you both this, if – is there one dress that stands out for you in these – in this collection? David, do you have a favorite?

KAHN: Oh, well, it’s – On display, I guess Tim is the designer Fath? The French designer which…

LONG: Yes.

KAHN: …I had not been aware of before. It’s an early 1950s rather striking evening gown and I thought that was rather remarkable. And one of these great untold stories that here’s a very – a pretty well known French designer and somebody from the 1950s here in San Diego was buying his fashions, you know, so that’s kind of interesting that people here in San Diego were right on the cutting edge, going back quite a ways.

CAVANAUGH: And, Tim, right before our break, can you tell me, perhaps do you have a favorite?

LONG: The 1910 piece from Carrie Jacobs Bond, I would say, is my favorite. It was sort of – it crept in toward the end of the process. I had found the piece but didn’t have any idea who Carrie Jacobs Bond was and then when I was back in Chicago, I had Public Radio on and I heard a whole segment on Carrie Jacobs Bond, who was the first woman – female songwriter to sell a million copies of one song…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

LONG: …and they had this whole program on her and she started her – that specific segment of her life in San Diego. And it was possible that this piece was worn at a very specific event in her life that’s often remembered when people are talking about her history.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about the exhibition “San Diego Style” that’s being presented by the San Diego Historical Society. We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about the exhibition at the Museum of San Diego History put on by the San Diego Historical Society, costumes from the late 19th century up until the late 20th century. I guess into the 21st?

KAHN: No, I think 20th century is good.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. My guests are David Kahn, director of the San Diego Historical Society, and Tim Long, curator of costumes at the Chicago History Museum, also the curator of the “San Diego Style” exhibit that we’re talking about. Tim, what can costume collections like this one tell us about ourselves?

LONG: Well, I think that clothing collections in museums are some of the most personal artifacts because we live our lives in these clothes and so clothing changes as much as many other material cultures. So you can see specific events in history reflected in the styles of dress and then once you apply the connections to San Diego through ownership, there’s a whole additional set of stories that can be told, sort of a window into the past of San Diego history through many of these pieces.

CAVANAUGH: How do we see an historical event reflected through clothing in this exhibit?

LONG: You can see in the 1915—my second favorite piece—is the 1915 afternoon ensemble that was worn by Harriet Phillips and she won the contest to rename Balboa Park for the preparation for the 1915…

LONG/CAVANAUGH: …exposition…

CAVANAUGH: …right.

LONG: …that was happening at Balboa Park. It was – the park was originally called City Park and there was a competition to rename it and it was Harriet Phillips that came up with this – with the new name. And her ensemble, worn to the opening of the fair, is a piece that you can clearly see the influence of the first world war which was influenced by the uniforms. People were looking at the men’s uniforms, and often in women’s wear and even in men’s wear you have specific details of the construction that are carried over into ready-to-wear fashions.

CAVANAUGH: And why are there no men’s fashions included in this exhibit?

LONG: Well, it was something we thought about at the beginning and although there are changes in men’s history, it is not as exciting to some. And so we wanted to focus specifically on women and then who knows in the future what could be done? But there certainly is a strong men’s wear collection at the museum that could support many different exhibitions.

CAVANAUGH: Now, David, we talked about the historical society’s wide costume collection.

KAHN: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, are you still acquiring pieces?

KAHN: Oh, sure, all the time. People offer us items and I think one of the things we’d like to do for the future is expand the collection in areas where there are certain weaknesses. We don’t have as much material now that document, say, the Latino community or the Asian community as we might like, so those would be priorities for the future where we might actually try to work with the communities to increase the size of those holdings.

CAVANAUGH: And is it wrong to assume that you’re only looking for couture or designer clothes?

KAHN: Oh, absolutely, because the collection includes material of all kinds. We have lifeguard uniforms, we have maids outfits, policemen’s uniforms. There’s a large quantity of material relating to the navy, whites, blue uniforms. So there’s material of all kinds in the collection. But this show that’s on now focuses on high fashion, essentially, but we could’ve done probably a dozen different shows. We could’ve done a men’s wear show. Love to do a late 18th, early 19th century show sometime, perhaps a show on leisure wear in Southern California. That would be fun to do. So…

CAVANAUGH: The flip-flops I talked about.

KAHN: …it’ll be – it’ll be all flip-flops, right, one thousand different varieties.

CAVANAUGH: Tim, you know, the historical society, this is the “San Diego Style” exhibit. So when you look around and you see, you know, what people are wearing in San Diego now, do you think San Diego has a current sense of style?

LONG: I think the comfortable certainly does stand out when I was there, and when I was there it was quite warm. And so there still is, though, I think, because you have a great deal of people from various places, that you have a nice mix of colors, of styles, and then of course with all of the stores that you have there that are offering the material. It’s sort of an urban – urban chic, sort of pushing the envelope in some ways, certainly at night, but you do see plenty of flip-flops and beach culture, which is spectacular for someone from the Midwest. You know, it’s wonderful to see that and all of the fashions that that certainly brings.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Tim, you do have a unique specialty: dress studies. Is that a new specialty? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

LONG: It is a study that where there’s certainly not many of us out there. There are a collection of costume collections around the world and there is graduate programs for the study of historic dress, also textile conservation, and so we tend to flock to the larger cities that have the museums that have those collections. But the curator that started the costume collection at my museum here at the Chicago History Museum started in the 1920s, so there are curators of dress that go back to the early part of the 20th century. But it was something that certainly started to build right around the 1960s and the 1970s.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, are museums getting more involved in telling stories through costume?

LONG: In some ways it almost appears it might be less…

CAVANAUGH: Really?

LONG: …because certain collections have been moved around recently but I think those that do have the collections are really understanding the importance that clothing has in exhibitions because no matter who you are, from what walk of life you are, whether or not you can afford the old couture gown or whether it is something that you would never wear, everyone, man, women – men and women, can understand how it would feel. And I think the connection to dress is something that people will have across the board perhaps not compared – or perhaps different when looking at paintings or sculpture. Not everyone understands the vernacular of that type of art, and dress is something that we can all connect to.

CAVANAUGH: Now the “San Diego Style” exhibit will be running for quite a while, until April first.

LONG: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: What’s on tap for the Museum of San Diego History after that?

KAHN: Oh, boy, well, in the spring we have a show coming in from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery called “Faces of the Frontier,” and it’s an exhibit featuring 19th and early 20th century photographs of people who were involved in opening up the west here in the United States, so there’s some California material represented in the show but it’s also about the entire west. So it’s going to be a great exhibition, so that’ll be on view in the spring of 2010. And then looking further beyond that, we have a couple of ideas. We’re working on a show on teenage life in San Diego and Tijuana and another photo exhibit. We have a huge photo collection of Indians from San Diego County, and so we’re working on a show about that as well.

CAVANAUGH: All of which sounds great.

KAHN: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everybody know that “San Diego Style,” as I said, will remain on view until April first of next year. It’s at the Museum of San Diego History in Balboa Park. Tim Long, David Kahn, thank you both so much for joining us.

LONG: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And you have been listening to These Days on KPBS. Stay with us. There’s more ahead. It’s These Days on KPBS.

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