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Fashion Features
Feb 22, 2012


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Fashion Authority

ALIVE catches up with fashion powerhouse Valerie Steele, just in time for her St. Louis appearance.
Story: Jill Manoff
Photos: Valerie Steele photo by Aaron Cobbett

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An afternoon chat with Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, proved downright inspiring. One of "Fashion's 50 Most Powerful," according to the New York Daily News, her expertise on every trend and designer discussed called to mind the "The Devil Wears Prada" scene in which Meryl Streep explains the rise of cerulean blue.

The curator of more than 20 enticing fashion exhibitions, and author of an impressive number of as-alluring books (including "Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power"), Steele will be in town April 13-14 to serve as the honored guest at Craft Alliance's ARTrageous Baubles Ball, and give a lecture at Washington University.

ALIVE: Fashion is your career; what do you say to people who pooh-pooh it?
VALERIE STEELE: I've always found it fascinating that there's so much hostility towards fashion. It's so often dismissed as being frivolous, or downright negative; it's "consumerist," "bourgeois,"  "conformist," "vanity," whatever—which means it's hitting a nerve. The fact that fashion is so controversial and often seen as negative just makes me feel more interested.

A: Why your interest in the corset?
VS: I did an exhibition and a book about corsetry, in which I explored some of the myths surrounding it. Women wore corsets for 400 years—often in defiance of male authorities. The corset functioned to make you look more attractive, younger and slimmer, more upper-class. In a way, the corset never really disappeared—it's just that fashion became more revealing in the 20th century. Corsetry has been replaced by diet and exercise, even liposuction.

A: Are high heels closely related?
VS: High heels, like corsets, are prime symbols of erotic femininity. It's all about the stories we tell ourselves about shoes—that only women wear high heels, high heels are sexier, etc. And, they do change the way your body looks. High heels tilt your pelvis back and your bosom and bottom out, so you're automatically taller, thinner and curvier-looking.

A: What was it about Daphne Guinness that inspired your latest book and exhibition?  
VS: I think Daphne is the most exciting and inspiring fashion icon—the only real fashion icon in the world today. Fashion for her is an art form, and she's fearlessly independent about what she wears. I think she flies the flag for individuality. In a time when people are dressing more and more alike, that's really inspiring.

A: What's your next big project?
VS: I'm working on a big exhibition for 2013 called "Queer Style," about the relationship between gay people and fashion over the last 100 years.


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