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An Embarrassment of Riches

by Alex Joseph

Over the door of FITís Special Collections office, Karen Cannell has posted a quote from The Beautiful Fall, Alicia Drake's biography of Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent: "Designers do not create in a vacuum; they need relentless stimulation, innovation, and objects of fascination to stir the mind."

The collection, housed in the Gladys Marcus Library, comprises some 8,000 objects, including all library materials that predate 1860, original fashion sketches, scrapbooks with biographical material about designers and companies, photographs, and other materials singled out for their rarity, value, or fragility. Cannell, a bubbly Southerner who looks terrific in the Lilly Pulitzer outfits she buys on eBay, is head of Special Collections, and Drakeís quote is her mantra.

The costumes on HBO's period drama Boardwalk Empire were inspired by works from here, and a graduate of FIT's MA program in Fashion and Textile Studies is researching a project about couturiers Mainbocher and Charles Frederick Worth for the Museum of the City of New York. Inspiration is essential to everyone in FIT's community, whether they're launching a company or designing a toy, and you can make an appointment to visit the collection by emailing

Cannell recently asked the rare book expert Leonard Fox for a list of volumes required for a top-tier fashion library. FIT lacked only ten. "We have a collection to be extremely proud of," Cannell says, "and it has to be seen as a dynamic collection that needs to grow regularly."

Her enthusiasm is so infectious that we asked her to pick some of her favorite goodies to feature on our pages. Associate Professor Lourdes Font, who teaches fashion history at the college, also provided comments. Font calls the collection "a treasure trove of pleasure. Thereís knowledge there, but also beauty."

Font describes George Barbier's illustration as "a new vision of Venus rising from the sea," for the cover of a very fashionable date book, Falbalas & Fanfreluches (Frills and Ornaments) (1924).
6 1/2 by 10 1/2 inches.
These drawings appear in the "Museum of Errors" section of the art book Le Vrai et Le Faux Chic (True and False Chic) (1914), a satirical look at fashion by Georges Marie Goursat. Font says, "The exaggerations of the caricatures show the gestures and poses of the time."
12 by 18 inches.
In Iribe's illustration, ladies in Paul Poiret gowns gaze, amused or bemused, into a black-and-white past, when women wore corsets, even during the potentially strenuous task of playing music. "Poiretís revolution in fashionóto remove the garmentís understructureóis reflected in Iribeís modernist flattening of the contemporary figures," Cannell says. Several versions of the red dress, called "Eugenie," are known to exist. Poiret (1879-1944), a towering figure in fashion, pioneered the "lifestyle" concept, creating fragrances and interiors and influencing art forms, including illustration. This image, one of the earliest examples of this illustration style, appears in Les Robes de Paul Poiret (1908), one of Poiretís "look books," which would have been sent to potential clients. Special Collections owns this one and Les Choses de Paul Poiret (1911), both extremely rare.
Pochoir, 11 by 12 inches.

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