Petra Slinkard, Curator of Costume, Chicago History Museum.
Today’s profile is all about Petra Slinkard, Curator of Costume, Chicago History Museum. It is always interesting, to me, how one makes friends. Quite often, at least with me, you can know someone for years and not become good friends, while other people you meet once and know right away that you will become close friends…it is a mystery to me! Well, this is exactly what happened when Petra came to the Chicago History Museum www.chicagohistory.org. We not only worked together, I was then the President of the Costume Council, but also became friends and have shared many a giggle, a glass or two of wine along with discussions on our mutual passion, fashion and, of course, the Costume Collection. In addition, Petra is on the Board of Directors of the Costume Society of America, an organization we both hold dear! For more information www.costumesocietyamerica.com
Getting the giggles while doing a photo shoot (one of many!) for the Chicago History Museum’s Costume Collection Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mile exhibition sponsored by the Costume Council, with my Bonnie Cashin aqua outfit and Abra Wilkin’s Adolfo red gown, both were included in the exhibition.
I greatly admire her knowledge of the history of costume along with her willingness to learn more and explore our vast world of costume and how it relates to each time period as well as how to present it in the here and now! Her current exhibition The Making of Mainbocher, which I have reviewed in depth in previous posts, and it’s accompanying catalog (the first monograph on this fascinating designer) has been drawing rave reviews from the press and the public alike. Now let’s hear a portion of Petra’s taped interview, we will hear more in a future post.
Petra doing a television interview about the Making Mainbocher exhibition some of the mannequins as the backdrop during set-up of the exhibition.
We sat down for a chat and Petra kindly answered my questionnaire.
When did you know what you wanted to do?
I wanted to be a variety of things I wanted to be a lawyer in third grade I thought it was glamorous and saw lawyers on television and liked everything about it especially the power. In my teens when my fascination with clothing began and I started thinking about style and how I dressed and what I wore. My Mother, Grandmothers, and older sisters were very stylish and I would watch that whole “tribe” get ready and was fascinated by it.
Dressed in Dutch costume, with Mom (sitting on her lap) aunt, cousin and both grandmother’s in the Netherlands. Early 1980s
I wouldn’t qualify myself as very “girly” as a child but I grew to realize it was important in how you presented yourself in society. Then when I went to college I started thinking about my career choices, I wanted to be a detective or in law enforcement (Nena…did you think you were Nancy Drew?) I don’t know, maybe, I watched a lot of Murder She Wrote, the curiosity of it and the questions intrigued me. I feel that curiosity brought me to where I am. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do but wanted to take the time to explore other areas of education. I took a variety of classes from interior design to art history to the physics of sound to Roman and Classical Literature looking for a variety of ways to get involved. Eventually, I realized that the theme was culture and arts driven. I explored being a costume designer for the stage, I worked very hard at it in school and was involved with some student productions and worked my way up and became the head costumer for the Student UnionLeague. It was a tremendous experience and I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of work but looking back on it, it prepared me to work with a large group of eclectic people on a very small budget and making something happen. And so, that making something happen in producing a “product of sorts” got me very excited. My sophomore year I realized that I could no longer ignore my affinity for fashion, and I began taking costume history classes. I really wanted to try design but the program I was in was full and life has a way of making decisions for you so instead of going the independent study route which would have made me be a fashion design major I went into merchandising and again, in retrospect, I really enjoyed the business side not realizing how much I would use those experiences now. Long story short…I ended up volunteering in the University’s costume collection (Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, the Elizabeth Sage Costume Collection, see photo below www.indiana.edu/-sage.coll).
Photo taken by Nena Ivon
And one of the first collections I worked on was the Bill Blass Retrospective that they mounted and it was a great experience. I was moving boxes from one corner to another and combing sequins under the direction of Michael Vollbracht. (Nena’s note, this Exhibition was underway when Bill Blass passed away. The exhibition and book that accompanied the exhibition were organized by my mentor and former boss, Helen O’Hagan, one of Bill’s closest confidants, and the designer and artist, Michael Vollbracht, I will profile him in a later post. It was a very emotional experience for me when I saw the superb exhibit, Bill had been one of my dear designer friends and was always there for me, yet another post!))
From the Bill Blass Exhibition photo credit not available
It was a fantastic experience in the Art Museum which was different from the other campus venues we had worked on before. It was very valuable to see all the different parts of the puzzle. So that is when I got hooked, I knew that working with old things, which I had been attracted to since I was a child, I was always collecting things from my relatives when then were tossing them out building my own collection and asking about their stories. From there I went to the Indianapolis Art Museum (more on this and her journey to CHM in a future post on exhibitions)
Photos taken by Nena Ivon
From the Indianapolis Museum of Art 2013 Exhibition An American Legacy which featured Norman Norell, Bill Blass, Halston and Stephen Sprouse from Petra’s tenure at the Museum.
The current Chicago History Museum Exhibition Making Mainbocher
What would your alternate career path have been:
Gardening in some form would like to own a greenhouse along with a bed and breakfast, create travel package experiences, teach or produce fashion shows.
In storage showing a Christian LaCroix garment from the Costume Collection to a guest designer
Gardening, jogging, biking, cooking, being with family and friends
Home, what style:
Eclectic, random bits of very expensive along with crates covered in fabric, art from family and friends, lots and lots of plants
Greek Mythology actually took classes in summer school on the subject
The Good Earth, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Richard Bradigan books, Classics such as Great Expectations
Poetry especially British poetry
(Was reading The Paris Wife and Loving Frank in tandem when interview was conducted)
Most of all, I love Independent Films, I watch movies like crazy!! Woody Allen films, also have watched Grease and The Breakfast Club over and over. Staying Alice, I enjoy films that are challenging, make me think and give me a different perspective!
Jazz, Funk and Soul, Motown, Classic Rock, Chopin, and Beethoven, I collect vinyl!
Theater in order:
Musical Theater, Ballet, Legitimate Theater, Symphony, Opera
Favorite type of food:
In order…Tacos, Thai, Indonesian, Italian and Pizza
Favorite Chicago Restaurants:
Girl and the Goat, Siena
Guests at your Fantasy Dinner Party
Menu: Indoisisan Corn Fritters, because they are a build it yourself meal (recipe to be in a future post!), side of mashed potatoes and either pecan or sugar cream pie.
Favorite vacation spot and where you would like to go:
Upstate Michigan Dunes more for the experience of who I was with as well as a mini-van trip with family in Europe. To visit, Greece, Budapest, Laos, and Argentina.
With FashioNext students in the gallery of Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mile (2015). One of Petra’s favorite things is working with students and giving them information on the history of the designers and their creations.
Favorite Chicago Street Art:
The ever-changing murals on the front of Mott Street Restaurant photo credit unknown
How do you want to be remembered:
Who loved the people that she loves. Worked hard and gave it everything she had!
Getting ready to attend one of the Chicago History Museum’s The Last Speakeasy events
Thank you, Petra, for sharing your story with us…with more to come in future posts. You give 1000% to everything you do and obviously relish the experience. It is always a pleasure to spend time with you whether asking questions or sharing a meal, a film or just good conversation. You have found your perfect career, continue to enjoy the adventure!
All photos unless otherwise noted courtesy of Petra Slinkard