The Museum at FIT is one of only a handful of museums in the world devoted to the art of fashion. The museum was founded in 1969 to support the educational programs of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a college that is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. Known then as the Design Laboratory, The Museum at FIT began presenting exhibitions in the 1970s, utilizing a collection on long-term loan from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Over time, The Museum at FIT has acquired its own collection, which now consists of more than 50,000 garments and accessories from the eighteenth century to the present, as well as thousands of textiles and other fashion-related material.
In the 1980s, the Design Laboratory was becoming something more than a valuable educational tool. The late Richard Martin and his colleague, Harold Koda, organized seminal fashion exhibitions such as Fashion and Surrealism, Three Women, and Jocks and Nerds. A conservation laboratory was also established to care for the rapidly growing collection of clothing and textiles.
In 1993, the Board of Trustees of FIT, noting the significance of the Design Laboratory's collections and exhibitions, changed the institution's name to The Museum at FIT. In 1997, Dr. Valerie Steele joined the staff of the Museum, where she has curated exhibitions such as London Fashion, which received the first Richard Martin Award for Excellence in Costume Exhibitions from The Costume Society of America, The Corset: Fashioning the Body, and Gothic: Dark Glamour. Dr. Steele was named director of The Museum at FIT in 2003, and the museum was awarded accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums in the summer of 2012.
To better advance knowledge of fashion, The Museum at FIT launched its first annual Fashion Symposium in 2003 in conjunction with the exhibition Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-Sèicle Paris. This ambitious, two-day symposium addresses a theme related to the current museum special exhibition and features an interdisciplinary mix of noted scholars, authors, and curators from around the world.
The Couture Council of The Museum at FIT is a membership group that supports the museum's exhibitions and public programs. The first Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion in 2006 was given to Ralph Rucci in 2006. Recipients of the award are chosen by the Couture Council Advisory Committee, an independent group consisting of curators, editors, and retailers. Other awardees have included Alber Elbaz, Isabel Toledo, Dries Van Noten, Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, and Manolo Blahnik.