Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas. We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.
Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian who specialises in European fashion and textiles, French and British painting, and the decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. She graduated from the Courtauld MA in the History of Dress with Professor Aileen Ribeiro in 1997. She works as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world, and has contributed to books, scholarly journals, and magazines.
What made you want to devote your career to fashion and textile history?
It’s something that always interested me from a very young age, but it was only in my senior year of college that I realised it could be a career instead of a quirky hobby. I vividly remember pulling Dress and Morality off the shelf in my university library, turning to the back flap, and reading “Dr. Aileen Ribeiro is head of the History of Dress Department at the Courtauld Institute.” I wrote to the Courtauld for an application the same day, because you couldn’t do anything useful online in 1994!
What was unique about your Courtauld MA, and how did this in particular enhance your career?
I consider myself lucky to have done the MA when it was still a two-year course. And our special period was the late eighteenth century, which was obviously hugely influential for me. At the time, there were not any similar programs in the US, so having that training set me apart in the museum field. It gave me membership in a very small, mostly female club. To this day, my colleagues are amazed to hear that I got to listen to Aileen lecture for hours every week. I still have every page of notes I took in her course and I refer to them all the time.
You specialise in eighteenth century dress and yet work on modern fashion too. Why is it important to have a cross period focus?
Unfortunately, there’s just not a tremendous demand for eighteenth-century dress historians, so it’s helpful to diversify if you want to make a living as a freelance scholar, curator, and journalist. I resisted modern fashion for a long time; I think it was the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition in Montreal that finally brought me around and got me thinking critically about contemporary designers.
What is your pet project at the moment?
I haven’t given up the eighteenth century, but my next book will be on American fashion in the 1960s. I’m fascinated by the intersection of dress and politics, and by periods of dramatic social and sartorial change. Working in museums with encyclopedic collections has exposed me to a lot of different avenues of research I would not necessarily have pursued on my own, but I’m glad I did.
How has dress history changed since your MA?
There are so many more options for people who want to study dress history, although there is still nothing comparable to the Courtauld. And museums are finally realising that fashion is important, both as an art form and as a cash cow. The internet has gone from a novelty to an essential research tool, with both positive and negative results. There seem to be a lot more dress history conferences, which is frustrating, because I want to go to all of them!
How would you like to see fashion history develop in the future?
I would love to see a fashion history program in the US that is based in art history rather than museum studies or fashion design. And I would like to see more serious books on fashion published, and fewer picture books, and more grant money for research that does not fit into traditional academic disciplines. There is fantastic work being done in our field, but very little of it is getting into print.
Twitter handle @HottyCouture
FIDM Museum blog at blog.fidmmuseum.org
Kimberly’s latest book: Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015) (find it here)