Black Fashion Museum finds home at Smithsonian

Via: Washington Post

Lois Alexander Lane, founded, curated and kept on life support for almost 30 years the Black Fashion Museum. The modest monument to African American creativity first opened its doors in 1979 in an unremarkable Harlem brownstone.

In 1994, it relocated to Washington. And among its most resonant artifacts are garments created by slaves, by famed dressmakers Ann Lowe and Rosa Parks, contemporary designers Stephen Burrows and Geoffrey Holder and countless anonymous seamstresses. Black history — American history — stitched out of cotton and lace.

When Lane died in 2007 at 91, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, it fell to her daughter, a retired District biology teacher living on a modest income, to shepherd her mother’s dream to a just end.

For years, Bailey, an only child, struggled to find funding for the museum and to maintain a collection of more than 1,000 artifacts without the dedicated help of experienced curators. But grants and donations were especially hard to come by in an economy that was bottoming out.

Her best intentions kept running headlong into the worst of circumstances. The museum, which in its last days was located in a narrow, two-story, hundred-year-old rowhouse at 2007 Vermont Ave. NW, lacked a proper heating and cooling system. The delicate clothes were at the mercy of Washington’s humid summer days, and the oldest garments, those from the 1800s, had begun to fray. Studiously preserved paper records were squeezed into metal file cabinets, stacked on shelves and stored in cardboard boxes. Invaluable historical frocks were draped over flimsy wire hangers because there was no place else for them to be.

Knowing the status quo could not hold, Bailey began searching for a place that would not only accept the collection in its entirety, but would also give it the treatment she felt it warranted. She was determined that the collection not go into the hands of a private citizen only to end up locked in someone’s vault. And she didn’t want it to go into a scholarly research center, either — doomed to climate-controlled storage and available to only a handful of approved academics.

“It had to be another museum, but not just any museum,” Bailey says. When she heard that this institution, with its prominent position on the Mall and its sole focus on telling the African American story, was “really coming to fruition, I said, ‘That’s the place.’ This museum is of a magnitude that it can do what I want to see done with this collection.

“They realize the significance of what they have and they’ve let me know that.”

Hidden history

So much of the African American experience is stashed in basements and attics. That hidden history is in danger of being washed away by the enormity of another Katrina or even a trifling family rift.

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