Today’s post is written by Curator Kevin Jones and Associate Curator Christina Johnson to explain the details of the FIDM Museum’s acquisition of objects from The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection.
With the upcoming Charles Whitaker auction of garments and accessories from Helen Larson’s private collection on April 28, 2018 in Pennsylvania, we’d like to take this opportunity to tell the story of the FIDM Museum’s formation of The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection, and dispel any confusion relating to what was acquired by our Museum versus what is now being auctioned.
A bit of history: the first time Kevin remembers learning about Helen Larson’s collection was when he found an old magazine article tucked away in the FIDM Museum research files. He specifically noted the solidly embroidered c. 1925 Chanel dress and c. 1898 Doucet gown worn by Consuelo Vanderbilt while Duchess of Marlborough (both of which are now in the Museum’s collection). In 2010, Conservator Cara Varnell told him about a collection she knew of for sale that was owned by people who attended her church. It was the same collection written about years ago and the owners were Larson’s daughters.
Tea Gown, c. 1878
FIDM Museum Purchase: Funds generously donated by Josephine K. and Jerry L. Gorelick
The first time Christina viewed the collection in person was during our first meeting with the sellers. We had been given an inventory list of pieces and had selected a few to see. High on the list for Christina was a gown worn by Vivien Leigh in one of her favorite childhood books, Doris Langley Moore’s Woman in Fashion (1949). Seeing the gown up close and in color for the first time (the book is black and white) is something she will never forget. The gown is now part of the Museum’s collection [see photo above].
Without hesitation, Kevin and Christina decided to go for it! Thus began a fundraising campaign that involved founding the FIDM Museum Fashion Council—our volunteer support group—reaching out to private and corporate donors, planning fundraising events, devising an online donation campaign, and investigating grants. Hundreds of people contributed and we are immensely grateful! We had a huge success with our “Adoption” program, whereby donors gave funds to acquire a favorite Larson object knowing that their unique credit line will always be displayed with it in our Galleries or in publications.
Bliss: Wedding Gowns from the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection, 2014
During this time we showcased hundreds of pieces from the collection in our Los Angeles and Orange County Campus Galleries, hosting exhibitions during the six-year project.
We also presented our research on many Larson pieces around the world, including: Costume Colloquium III (Florence), The Making of a Monarchy for a Modern World (Historic Royal Palaces, London), and the Institute of Historical Research (London), among others. Thanks to our many generous supporters, we were thrilled to raise the largest sum of money ever generated by the FIDM Museum. We successfully purchased major garments of royal pedigree, pristine-condition haute couture ensembles, and outstanding examples of head-to-toe accessories—all of these cherry-picked objects filled gaps in our Permanent Collection.
Even before the campaign to purchase these pieces began, the Museum was beneficiary of donations from the Helen Larson Estate in 2001. Her three daughters also generously donated additional objects during and after the fundraising campaign. In total, there are over 370 pieces in The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection at the FIDM Museum.
Additionally, the FIDM Museum acquired The Helen Larson Archive—papers, photographs, clippings, provenance notes, and invoices generated from Larson’s fifty years of collecting. These reference materials directly relate to pieces now held in our collection, as well as lots currently offered for sale by the Whitaker Auction.
There are also extensive materials related to prominent fashion historians Doris Langley Moore and Janet Arnold in the archive, which also holds correspondence from mid-twentieth century dealers and curators as well as fashion and textile auction catalogs from the 1960s-90s. Much of the material also relates to objects in other museum and private collections.
In addition to the FIDM Museum, objects from Helen Larson’s collection are held by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (including almost all of the garments that appear in Doris Langley Moore’s 1953 publication The Child in Fashion); Biltmore House in Ashville, North Carolina; Western Costume in Los Angeles (part of a working rental wardrobe catering to the film industry); and various private collections around the world.
Helen Larson was one of the most important private collectors of historic fashion of the 20th century, and we are delighted to include the most select and important pieces from her cherished possessions among our 15,000-piece collection. We invite the world to visit and hope researchers will utilize The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection and The Helen Larson Archive for years to come at the FIDM Museum!