To access the Costume and Textile Department at the Cincinnati Art Museum, you walk in one door of the elevator and later, out the opposite side. With Cynthia Amnéus, The Cincinnati Art Museum’s Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles since 1998, in the lead, I emerge to look down a shadowy hallway filled with white mannequins visible through their plastic drapery and from there into a large bright room. As far as the eye can see, ladies in white are grouped in various stages of undress, some wearing paper wigs, some bald and naked, some clothed and some with undergarments from a bygone era. Fluorescent lighting enhances the pallor of the scene; silence makes our footsteps sound like an intrusion into some arcane feminine assembly.

Amnéus’s office is tucked in a corner with one large window facing the room, a small appendage to the larger show. It is heaped with books, drawings and signs of a busy life. “My job is to be a steward for the collection, do research, and oversee purchases or donations,” says Amnéus. I work with our conservation department, but at the moment we don’t have a textile conservator on staff, and I’m not a professional textile conservator by any means. I do have a background in sewing and construction.”

The permanent collection is a combination of planning and serendipity: “Donations are certainly helter-skelter; purchases are a little more directed. I’m looking to fill gaps in the collections. For instance, we don’t have any early nineteenth century men’s wear, a time when men wore colorful and interesting clothes.” Examples of what is included are eighteenth century pieces, black men’s tailcoats, and some 1890’s ball gowns. “Essentially,” she adds, “We have dress from the late eighteenth century to the present day.” This includes women’s, men’s and children’s wear. “We have ethnic clothing – African costumes, Indian saris, Portugese garments, things from all over the world.” There is outer wear, nightwear, and underwear – whatever is worn on the body, including accessories such as shoes, hats, belts, parasols and handkerchiefs. All of this is kept in a temperature and humidity controlled environment monitored by the conservation staff. “I know what the atmosphere should feel like when I walk in, and if it is different, I immediately look it up.” In fact, the air feels moist in this area, and Amnéus says that textiles need the humidity, or they will dry out.

“When we renovated this space, we got a grant to buy compact storage. When we first got it ten to fifteen years ago, my colleagues were quite jealous. That was a huge undertaking – moving from the previous area.” However, it gave her a chance to see everything in the collection. This translates to a huge intellectual capital that Amnéus carries around in her brain when it comes time to fit pieces into shows. She adds, “I think this collection is somewhat comparable to the decorative arts collection in that it encompasses such a broad range of objects.

“One of the things I’m trying to do now is build our jewelry collection. This often ends up in decorative arts collections in museums. I don’t know a lot about jewelry, but I’m learning, and that’s what makes my job fun. There are a lot of gaps in the collection; our strength is really 1860’s to 1880’s, neoclassical, revival, Etruscan revival pieces, micro-mosaics – some really great things there. We do have objects on either end, but we don’t have a lot of great contemporary jewelry.” Part of the problem is that the collection has not been shown a lot, so people aren’t aware of it. People also tend to pass jewelry along to family or sell it instead of giving it to museums. “The Brooklyn Museum has a wonderful collection of jewelry,” she continues, “made by Art Smith (1917 – 1982), an African American jeweler working in New York. They are large-scale, beautiful sculptural pieces. I’m talking to them about bringing that exhibition here. They have his tools, sketches, the original shop sign, and photographs of models wearing the jewelry – the whole story.” The Brooklyn Museum had a show of Smith’s jewelry in 2008.

Amnéus is not aware of any prominent Cincinnati jewelers except perhaps the Whitehouse brothers. “We don’t have anything from them in the collection and don’t know a lot about them.” Whitehouse Brothers, started in 1898 by Joseph C. and William H. Whitehouse made platinum jewelry, and by the 1920’s was the largest firm of manufacturing jewelers in America. “There were silversmiths like Duhme & Co.” Duhme manufactured huge quantities of silver on the premises. Also, from the 1850’s on, there were the Kinseys, C. Oskamp and C. Hellebush.

What does Amnéus say to a person phoning her with clothing and accessories from, say, the 30’s and 40’s comprising objects that are of little historic interest? “That,” she laughs, “is the hardest part of my job. Saying ‘no’ to people is difficult, because many times these things carry a lot of sentimental value. What I try to do is explain, before I see anything, that we are very selective, and we are. What I’m trying to build is a good 20th century collection. We have great 19th century things, but once we hit the 1960’s, our collection is not as strong. We have a lot of ‘good’ dresses; we don’t need any more ‘good’ dresses; we need ‘great’ dresses.” When Amnéus looks at possible additions, she assesses a number of factors: condition; if it fits a gap in the collection; and finally she has to ask herself whether, given what is already in the collection, she would choose this piece to compliment it. If the answer is ‘no’, then there is no reason for her to take it. “It doesn’t serve the donor to have it sit in storage forever, and it doesn’t serve the museum. I will always suggest other places that they might consider donating things. Some people are not happy with my decision, but most people understand.” Deacquisitioning is another hard part of the job and a further reason to be selective up front. “It does happen, as over time the mission will change. For instance, Mary Meyer, curator of the costume wing at Cincinnati Art Museum (in the 1960’s), who had been head of the fashion design department at UC, wanted to encourage students to come to the museum to study objects. She took in a lot of things that were put in what was called a ‘study collection’. They were things of lesser quality that could be handled by students.” Valid at the time, the present goal precludes the collection of study objects, due to limitation of space, time and money. These are things that would be deacquisitioned. In that collection there was a group of 19th century bodices, some of which had been stripped of trim, for research only. These are no longer appropriate to the collection.

“Too, focus can change with directors and curators, incremental changes. There is always that kind of massaging of the collection. Or we might have acquired 20 years ago a Pauline Trigère dress, and then we are given a better example, so we have to weigh the quality. It is a sensitive subject; we always notify families that this is happening. We might trade or transfer or even sell the piece at auction. In the latter case, we would credit the original donor with the funds to buy something new.”

Amnéus’s mother taught her to sew on an old Singer machine. “The first things my sister and I sewed were Barbie Doll clothes – very difficult in terms of size,” she laughs. “Both my degrees are in fine arts, but I’ve always had an interest in textiles, dress and fashion. My master’s is in fibers and textile, so that’s where my background comes from. There really aren’t a lot of programs out there, and for my generation there were even fewer. People from my generation come to this from all different areas, from studio art to fashion, sometimes through what used to be home economics and material culture. Some come through theatre and costume design. Through all that is the interest in fashion and, for me, an understanding of construction, which is important to what I do.”

Amnéus says that she can often attribute a dress to a specific designer by its cut and fabric, but not always. Balenciaga, Dior, Yves St. Laurent and others had their distinctive attributes. Halston is a favorite of hers. “Vionnet was the pioneer of the bias cut being draped on the body instead of flat patterning and was a definite influence on Halston. Halston was a genius – when I look at some of his things, I think: how would you conceive of constructing a dress like this? If you look at a sheath dress, the natural way to construct it would be to have shoulder seams and side seams, but he would take a single piece of fabric, cut it on the bias, and you have one diagonal seam that wraps the body and makes a sheath dress.”

Aménus has recently been to Dallas on business and got to see the Jean Paul Gaultier collection. “His work is unbelievable,” she says. “Galliano does some amazing things too. I also have a particular interest in some of the contemporary Japanese designers, more avant garde, and fascinating in terms of the work they are doing.”

Amnéus loves working with the objects and doing research. “When I moved from teaching at Xavier University to working at the museum, it was a tough decision, as I love teaching. I actually started here part time in 1991 and was the assistant to the previous curator, Otto Thieme, really the person who got this collection on the map with big exhibitions – Simply Stunning was the first one he did. When I started, we did With Grace and Favour, Victorian & Edwardian fashion in America. He became involved in The Costume Society of America, the professional organization for curators, educators, and theatre people. He bought a great many mannequins and convinced Millard Rogers, then the director, that we should for the first time actually purchase pieces. He filled a lot of important gaps, filled out the textile collection and was a great mentor for me.

Earlier research by Amnéus was focused on the work of dressmakers who worked in Cincinnati in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and resulted in the 2003 exhibition and book A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati’s Golden Age, 1877–1922 (This publication won the 2004 Victorian Society of America Publication Award and was nominated for the Costume Society of America’s publication award.) She also curated the more recent Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns, and authored the book by that title with Sara Long Butler and Katherine Jellison.

Of dressmaking in Cincinnati, Amnéus says A Separate Sphere “was a great exhibition to organize” as she discovered documents in the handwriting of Mary Meyer, Caroline Shine (curator after Meyer) and Otto Thieme comprising their research on the local dressmakers. In the 19th and 20th century, “these dressmakers were really stepping out of the box in terms of what they doing. In the 19th century it was not proper for a woman to be working, so most of them operated out of their homes and got their business through word of mouth. The bolder ones had salons in buildings downtown. A very few advertised. In the census, however, their occupation would be listed as ‘housekeeper’. They were highly revered. Selena Cadwallader, for instance, worked in the 1880’s. One of the women from the Swift family went to Paris and had a reception gown made by Charles Frederick Worth. She brought home extra fabric and took it to Selena Cadwallader and had her make an evening bodice to get extra use from the skirt. The wealthiest women in town patronized these dressmakers.

“At the height of dressmaking in the 1890’s there were over 1,500 dressmakers in Cincinnati that I was able to chart. There were probably hundreds more – not seamstresses but dressmakers who were designing. Anna Dunlevy, one of my favorites, had a client who, as an unmarried woman came on the train from Huntington, WV (her father was a railroad magnate). She went on to marry a Texas rancher, and Anna Dunlevy made her wedding dress. She continued to take the train to New York or Washington, stopping on the way out to choose designs, and on the return trip for fittings; then the pieces would be shipped when done.”

Exhibitions, curated by Amnéus at The Cincinnati Art Museum are: 2012, Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth; 2011, Art Deco: Fashion and Design in the Jazz Age; 2010, Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns; 2009, Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry; 2008, Co-Curated Long Time No See: Hidden Treasure; 2007, Masterpiece Quilts from the Shelburne Museum; 2007, Designed to Dazzle: Cincinnati Collects Tiffany Jewelry; 2007, Where Would You Wear That? The Mary Baskett Collection; 2006, Co-Curated Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum; 2005, Cat Chow; 2005, Hanten and Happi: Traditional Japanese Work Coats from the Sumi Collection; 2004, It’s About Time: Dressing through the Day; 2003, John Bartlett: Dreaming in Darkness; 2003, A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati’s Golden Age, 1877-1922; 2000, Sleeping Beauty: Tapestries by Maud Rydin March; 1998, Spirit of the Cloth: African American Quilts; 1997, New Art 8: Beyond Form, Beyond Fashion and at Textile Museum, Washington, DC, Contemporary Japanese Fashion: The Mary Baskett Collection.

Publications include: 2012, “A Method for Mounting Costume Using Fosshape” forthcoming in Journal for the American Institute of Conservation, co-authored with Marla Miles; 2010, Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns, Exhibition catalog (Nominated for 2010 Millia Davenport publication award from the Costume Society of America); 2010, “The Willard Family Portrait” in Adornment: The Journal for the American Society of Jewelry Historians; 2010, “Fashion Designers, Seamstresses, and Tailors” in Volume 3 Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion; 2006, “The Art of Ornamental Hairwork” in Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum; 2003, John Bartlett: Dreaming in Darkness (exhibition catalog); 2003, A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati’s Golden Age, 1877-1922, Exhibition catalog, (awarded 2004 Ruth Emery publication award from The Victorian Society in America and nominated for 2004 Millia Davenport publication award from the Costume Society of America).

Amnéus is a member of the Costume Society of America, the Textile Society of America, and the American Society of Jewelry Historians.

–Cynthia Osborne Hoskin

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