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Fashion & Textiles

Across cultures and time, PEM’s fashion and textiles reveal how design shapes our identity.

Dress and adornment are potent symbols of identity and powerful tools for connection. PEM’s collections of fashion and textiles represent an incredible geographic range across four centuries. From the everyday to the exceptional, these holdings intersect with every collecting department in the museum, including the Phillips Library.

Among the most important in the United States, the museum’s American clothing collection, with examples dating from the early 18th century to the present, represents many of New England’s prominent families, including Salem’s Crowninshields, who helped establish the city as a seafaring hub. Among its areas of strength are military uniforms, a collection established by the Essex Institute following the end of the American Civil War in 1865, and significant holdings representing the work of notable designers, dressmakers and milliners.

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Acquired in 1899, George Rea Curwen’s collection of American decorative arts and textiles undergirds our holdings of New England fiber works, which span the 17th century to the present and comprise pictorial needlework and samplers, quilts and coverlets, domestic furnishings, and contemporary fiber arts.

Representing the efforts of artists working in Europe, East and Southeast Asia, and Oceania, and within the nations of Native America, PEM’s international textile and dress holdings boast striking and technically superior examples of flags, banners, and domestic textiles, as well as clothing and adornment, from everyday to couture. Ranging from hand-embroidered Indian kanthas (quilts) and capes made from mammal intestine by Unangan (Aleut) artists in Alaska to a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) boar tusk bracelet and runway fashions by contemporary Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, many of these objects enrich other areas of PEM’s collections.

One of the largest in the United States, PEM’s renowned footwear collection encompasses items from across the globe, with the majority made between the seventeenth century and the present.

Since 2009, under the guidance of Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM has focused on building an inclusive, transnational 20th- and 21st-century collection of fashion and fiber art. Many works acquired as part of this initiative have been through major gifts and bequests from prominent collectors such as style icon Iris Barrel Apfel. Furthering these efforts are ambitious and well-received exhibitions, such as Native Fashion Now in 2015–16, and the endowment of the position of curator of fashion and textiles by George and Nancy B. Putnam. In 2019, PEM opened its first gallery dedicated to fashion and design, signaling the critical role of these holdings in revealing who we are and how we continuously and creatively respond to our changing world.

In 2010, following the close of the exhibition Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel at PEM, Apfel bequeathed the entire exhibition collection to the museum, launching a creative and productive relationship between museum and muse. In PEM’s rotating display of Mr. and Mrs. Apfel’s fashions, visitors can see how a superb eye, boundless talent, and an adventurous spirit can empower impeccable personal style and inspire the world.

We invite you to search our collection database to explore thousands of outstanding works of art and culture that engage the mind and the spirit.

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Learn more about the nation’s oldest collecting museum in the Peabody Essex Museum Guide. Available for purchase in the PEM Shop.

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