Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Mystery of the Black Balenciaga

Last Friday I went to see an auction preview and at this auction there was a beautiful and dreamy black 1955 Balenciaga tulle gown.  As I was reading about the gown, I saw that it was from the Schenectady Museum.  Schenectady Museum??  A Balenciaga in Schenectady, New York?  And not only a Balenciaga but also a Christian Dior cocktail dress from 1958.  So feeling very Agatha Christie, very Miss Marple, I determined to discover how this Balenciaga ended up in Schenectady.

A Balenciaga in Schenectady: A Miss Marple Mystery (well, sort of - not really but in the spirit of Miss Marple I set off to do some sleuthing)

The Schenectady Museum and Suits-Bueche Planetarium was founded in 1934.  (Hello!  Where have I been?!  Obviously not in Schenectady.)  And they do indeed have a Costume and Textile department.  I spoke with the Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Chris Hunter, who generously gave me a bit of his day to talk to me about the costume and textile department at the museum.

In 1963, Marjorie Foote, the wife of a General Electrics engineer began work as a volunteer curator at  the Schenectady Museum and she helped to develop a high fashion collection at the museum.  Not too much is known about her background - she may have had some training or had worked at the Costume Institute at the Met here in New York before moving to Schenectady.  Marjorie Foote it seems was determined to form this collection and she wasn't afraid to call up designers and ask them to donate a piece for the collection.  (I didn't know Mrs. Foote of course but I love her fashion determination!)

In 1968 Mrs. Foote became Curator of Costume at the museum.  The collection numbered about 50 pieces then and eventually increased to over 500 pieces including work by Dior, Fortuny and Balenciaga.

The costume collection was displayed in numerous exhibitions through the 1960s and 1980s.  Marjorie Foote died in 1979.

In 2004 with a bequest from Marjorie and William Foote, a wing was named in their honor and the museum held a number of lectures on one of my favorite topics: fashion and design.

All photos courtesy of Charles A. Whitaker Auction House

Oh and did I mention that the black tulle Balenciaga came from a woman in Garrison-on-Hudson who was living at a "lodge".  Now, there is another mystery to be solved!

I am entirely and gratefully indebted to Chris Hunter for really being my Sherlock Holmes who enabled me to crack this case.  The Schenectady Museum and Suits-Bueche Planetarium is known as "Schenectady's Smithsonian"and recently acquired over 10,000 objects and 1.5million photographs from General Electric.  The museum's focus is the story of science and technology and they will be retaining a costume collection that also focuses on technological aspects of fashion design and items that relate to the community.

To find out more visit Schenectady Museum

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