Confessions of a Fashion Historian

Clothing rack full of clothes.

Our one-on-one Q & A with Sara Idacavage

Occupation: Instructor, Pratt Institute, Collections Manager of the Parsons Fashion Study Collection, fashion historian and former Amy Flurry intern
Current Location: New York
Instagram: @historyalamode

What is your job title and role?
I’m a part-time instructor at Parsons School of Design and the Pratt Institute, where I teach a variety of courses on fashion history, culture, textiles, and research methods. When I’m not teaching, I work as the Collections Manager of the Parsons Fashion Study Collection, which is the university’s vast archive of historic garments and accessories that were donated to Parsons by The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. I also serve as a course coordinator for the Parsons AAS Fashion Marketing and Communication program as well as a career advisor for students in the Parsons MA Fashion Studies program. When I’m not working on campus, I also do a lot of freelance writing and am an associate editor of The Fashion Studies Journal, so I tend to keep pretty busy!

How did you get here?
Once upon a time, I studied Fashion Merchandising at the University of Georgia and dreamed of becoming a fashion editor and stylist. After making the bold leap to New York after graduating in July 2009, I was lucky to land some great editorial internships at DailyCandy and Refinery29 and later took a position working in the advertising department at New York magazine. After two years and a lot of soul searching, I realized that my lifelong passion had always been fashion history, and that the only way to get a job working in that field was to get a master’s degree. I started the MA Fashion Studies program at Parsons School of Design in Fall 2012 and have been a happier person ever since. However, despite having found my true calling, I soon realized that competition for jobs in museum, archives, and other academic fields is just as competitive as those in fashion journalism.

Sara Idacavage. fashion historian.So more internships?
Yes, I interned in the costume department at the Museum of the City of New York and landed the perfect gig working as the fashion specialist of The New School Archives and Special Collections, where my only job was to research and catalog fashion sketches, illustrations, and photographs all day. However, like most perfect jobs, that ran out of funding, and so I started working in the corporate design archives of a few major American fashion designers, including Ralph Lauren. Eventually the stars were aligned and I was offered a job teaching at Parsons.

What’s next (in fashion?) in ornamentation?
I think people definitely want to see more handwork and quality in their embellishments. While machines have certainly provided us with ways to create flashy garments, I think people are willing to give up some of that glitz and glamour for embellishments that are reflective of artisanal skills. At the same time, I see less embellishments being used by brands who have a more sustainable focus as long-wearing pieces that help to form a capsule wardrobe usually need to be simpler in order to last season after season. In that case, I think there will be a greater emphasis on embellished accessories or special, multipurpose pieces.

How does the past inform this new movement and how has it changed?
It’s interesting to think about how the importance of embellishments has shifted as clothing has become cheaper to produce in general. Throughout much of history, embellishments and trimmings were what changed the most often in fashion since changes in fabric and silhouette evolved much, much slower. Embellishments and trimmings provided people with a way to keep up with new trends and provide more variety to their wardrobe during times when fabric was far more valuable than how we see it today. Whenever I think about how people are moving more towards natural dyes and hand-stitched details, it reminds me of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which brought more value to simple, handcrafted pieces after people felt overwhelmed by mass production. There’s also a possibility that embellishments will help to fulfill the human desire for customization as that has been somewhat lost in the world of fast fashion.

How does communications play a role in your work now?
Instagram has also totally changed the way that historical knowledge is spread. The work that happens behind the scenes in museums and archives has always been somewhat hidden from the public eye. Today you can see exactly what curators and archivists are doing on a daily basis from their Instagram accounts, which have really brought an entirely new public interest into the field of fashion history. People who would once get all of their fashion news and information from a source like Vogue or bloggers are now able to read about the history of fashion from the multitude of fashion historians who share their work on Instagram. On top of that, I now use Instagram as a way to communicate with curators and archivists across the globe, and we often share information about the pieces in our collections. Before Instagram, I don’t think there was ever a way for so many historians to be connected since the exchange of information was typically limited to what was published in books, journal articles, or shared at academic conferences. At the same time, there is now a need for historians like myself to build a “brand” around their image, which is what helps us to get more job opportunities that didn’t exist when our work was mainly done behind closed doors.

What’s the future of fashion media?
It’s hard to believe just how much has changed since I left journalism for academia in 2012. When I was first starting my career as a writer, blogging and street style photography still felt relatively new, and we were all celebrating the democratization of the fashion media. After that initial shift in media influence, it became apparent that fashion still had a massive problem with inclusivity and diversity, which has been the impetus for more changes in the fashion media in recent years. While it’s certainly hard to ignore the growing need to add more diversity to fashion media, it’s also interesting to see how fashion websites and periodicals have sometimes taken on a more educational role. For example, I see a lot of publications that are teaching consumers about sustainability and how things are made. Since people have become so disconnected from the production of fashion, I think this sort of content is very important. It’s not enough just to talk about trends anymore—fashion journalists also need to explore why these trends are happening.