Profiles in Art: Colleen Hill

Colleen Hill is a fashion historian, author, and Curator of Costume and Accessories at The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She is currently based in New York City. 


Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field of work/study?

I’ve loved fashion since childhood, and my earliest dream was to become a fashion designer. When I was about 10, I found a book in my local library called Radical Rags. It was a vibrant, beautifully-illustrated book about 1960s fashion, and I used it as a style bible throughout my late childhood and teens. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a fashion historian or curator when I began college, so I pursued a degree in art history, always working in elements of fashion history when I could. While I was looking at potential master’s degree courses, I came across an MA program called Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice at FIT. It was the only program I applied to. Thankfully I was accepted!

Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?

I interned at The Museum at FIT while I was still a graduate student, so I knew some of the staff and had become familiar with the museum’s fantastic collection of clothing and accessories. Not surprisingly, there weren’t any curatorial positions open when I graduated, but there was a part-time administrative position available. I applied to that, got the job, and began doing anything and everything I could to help my busy colleagues and learn the ropes. My responsibilities ranged from acting as a receptionist to pursuing copyright for our publications. I learned a lot about each department and how it operates, which is still beneficial to my work today. About a year after I started at MFIT, a full-time position for an assistant curator became available, and I was moved into that job. I’ve since curated or co-curated more than 10 exhibitions and assisted on at least a dozen others, and I was promoted to the position I hold now.  

Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?

Time management is my biggest challenge. The Museum at FIT has an especially aggressive exhibition schedule – we do four major shows per year. Sometimes I’m working on three or four exhibitions at one time. Prioritizing can be difficult! I also love to write books that correspond to my exhibitions, which is a really time consuming but rewarding task.

Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?

 I have the pleasure of working with a fantastic team of people that is dedicated to the conservation, display, and interpretation of fashion. The number of fashion curators in the world is already small; even smaller is the number of curators who have the advantage of working in a museum that is dedicated to fashion. Putting on fashion exhibitions is difficult – the conservation of these objects is really tricky, and dressing them properly on mannequins or forms is a huge challenge. Knowing that my colleagues understand these challenges makes my job much easier and a lot more fun. In general, having a position that centers on researching, writing, and looking at objects is fantastic.  

Q: What inspires you? What motivates you?

Fashion objects themselves inspire me. As much as I love researching in print sources, nothing competes with looking closely at how objects are made. In my opinion, fashion has an especially intimate relationship with the wearer. It is quite literally made to be close to our bodies and to represent us to the world. The Museum at FIT has a permanent collection of about 50,000 objects, currently housed in beautiful, newly renovated storage spaces. Walking into those spaces is still an inspiring experience for me. There’s always something new to discover.

Q: Were there ever moments in your professional life when you doubted yourself/what you were doing? How did those moments resolve?

As a rule, I find that a small amount of self-doubt can be beneficial. It prevents me from coasting on past successes – I am always checking my work and striving to do better. I just have to make sure that doubt doesn’t take precedence over self-assurance! I’ve never doubted that this is the right field for me, but there have definitely been moments when I’ve taken on too much. Thankfully that is something that can be learned from. Since I’ve been doing this for a decade, I now have a strong sense of how long various types of projects will take to complete.

Q: What advice would you give to young art historians just starting in the field?

Be open to taking jobs that aren’t exactly what you are hoping for, but that point you toward the place you’d like to be. If I hadn’t taken a part-time administrative position, it’s likely I wouldn’t be where I am today. Learn whatever you can in whatever position you’re in, maintain a positive attitude, and try to make yourself invaluable.  

Q: What is one contentious issue in the art world that you are very passionate about?
I am constantly thinking about fast fashion and its negative effects on the industry. About seven years ago, I co-curated an exhibition on sustainable fashion. It highlighted both good and bad environmental practices as they relate to fashion for a span of 250 years. It’s incredible to learn how much value clothing used to have. It was not something that was worn a few times and simply thrown away. We’re all consuming way too much, and the pace of fashion is leading to lessened quality and lessened creativity. I was never a fan of fast fashion to begin with, but now about 90% of my wardrobe is secondhand or vintage. It’s proven to be a fun way to shop that also puts my mind at ease. I’m not totally opposed to buying new clothing, but it has to be something that I know will have lasting value in my wardrobe.
Q: In your opinion, what is an under-researched topic in the field?

My current research is for an exhibition and book entitled Fashion Unraveled, which explores the ideas of imperfection and incompletion in fashion. It will include garments that are altered, unfinished, or deconstructed, in addition to clothing that shows signs of wear. This is a topic that has gained some traction among fashion historians, and I look forward to furthering the conversation through the examination of objects from our permanent collection. One of the things I love about fashion history – which is a less established field than art history – is that there remains so much to research and explore.

Q: As you probably know, the new proposed federal budget eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as many other cultural/educational organizations. If you had to address the general public, why is arts/art history education important for the average American?

The arts are critical to expanding one’s mind to new and larger ideas, whether those are political, social, religious, etc. I was raised in an industrial town in the Midwest. Although it was a nice place to grow up, I didn’t really fit in. Learning about the arts – often through used textbooks – made me understand that there were many outlets I could explore that would interest me. I played music, I danced, I painted – I tried everything! All of those things provided a foundation for my love of sociology, history, and languages, and generally shaped my path in life. Everyone should have that opportunity, at any stage in their lives.

Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?

My parents definitely had concerns about my choices. My father was a mechanical engineer, so he didn’t understand why his daughter wanted to study art history. It is true that it can be difficult to find a job in a niche field, but there are ways to set yourself up for success, and this is what I would stress to parents. Research the various ways that your arts degree could be applied in real-life, professional settings – for example, even if you’re certain you want to be a curator, you should be aware of other possible jobs and be willing to do those. Total commitment is essential to getting ahead: get the best grades you possibly can, and take initiative beyond your classroom work to research and write. Join professional organizations related to your field as early as possible. Make connections with established professionals. Also remember that our fields tend to be small, and everyone knows one another. It’s always important to be respectful and make a good impression.

Just for fun…

Q: Can you recommend a wine (any alcohol/cocktail) and cheese (any drunk food) to us?

I’ve been obsessed with hydration during these chilly, windy months, so I’ve often been swapping wine and cocktails for a blend of fresh grapefruit juice and lime-flavored seltzer over ice. As for cheese, I would recommend a fresh ricotta with honey and crunchy breadsticks – an idea I borrow from one of my favorite local places, Astoria Bier and Cheese.


Cover Image by Bob Bland.

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