A few weeks ago the Boston Globe reported that Iris Apfel will donate more than 600 pieces of her clothing collection to the Peabody Essex Museum. Apfel is an interior designer and businesswoman, but most of all she is known as a style icon. The circular eyeglass shape she prefers is one of her hallmarks, as are the multifaceted, layered, and often colorful ensembles she wears.
Back in 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition of Apfel’s clothing called Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel. This show traveled to Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, The Nassau County Museum in New York, and then the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
Many expected that Apfel would leave her collection to the museum that first exhibited it, the Met. Obviously the Met has the most expansive and deep collection of historic costume in the United States. So it sent waves through the fashion history world as to why she would choose a museum like the Peabody Essex, which has no collection specifically for costume, according to its website.
When I lived in Massachusetts, I had the pleasure of visiting the Peabody Essex a few times and can vouch for the quality work they do. Wedding Bliss: The Marriage of Art and Ceremony still sticks out in my head as one of the most multidimensional and elegant exhibitions I have ever seen. The show included wedding attire from both Western and international cultures, fine art, decorative arts, other bits of material culture from weddings, and contemporary art. So I can see why Apfel feels her collection is in good hands.
My best guess is that Apfel wants her collection to live under the best preservation standards and be exhibited in a museum where it will shine. Surely the Peabody Essex is more than capable of that. Also, by giving to the Peabody Essex, which has strong costume holdings in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries but little after the 1940s, she can be sure that the contemporary section of fashion in the museum will be built around her gift.
As good timing would have it (and these kinds of things always have good timing), a donation by George and Nancy Putnam of Putnam Investments is enabling the museum to hire a textile, fashion, and costume curator. And Apfel and her husband are making a donation for a gallery specifically devoted to fashion in the new wing the museum is building to open in 2017.
If Apfel’s collection had gone to the Met, it would have been lost (metaphorically only) in their huge collection. By giving to a smaller museum of excellent caliber, she knows her clothing will see more exhibition time and will be considered a jewel.