Museums Collectors USA

Peabody Essex to get all dressed up

Iris Apfel donates highlights of her wardrobe to help create textiles gallery

Iris Apfel's gift has encouraged other donations

The director and curators at the Peabody Essex Museum are planning a gallery that will include clothes and accessories from the wardrobe of the glamorous nonagenarian Iris Apfel. The Massachusetts museum was informed of a gift of hundreds of items of clothing from Apfel and her husband, Carl, in February, which will allow it to create a gallery of historical and contemporary fashion and textiles.

Apfel, who is often called irreverent and irrepressible, is known for her huge round spectacles worn above clunky necklaces and bundles of bracelets, and haute couture togs matched with flea market finds or items snatched from souks. An interior designer, she founded Old World Weavers in 1950 with her husband to replicate period textiles, and advised US presidents on the restoration of the White House’s interiors.

Apfel was the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “Rare Bird of Fashion: the Irreverent Iris Apfel”, in 2005, a version of which travelled to the Peabody Essex Museum in 2009, which she helped design and organise. The gift of objects to the museum will include Apfel’s clothing, jewellery and accessories from the exhibition, plus additional items, including accessories she designed.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, the chief curator at the Peabody Essex, says that the museum is “ecstatic” to receive the gift. The museum has a strong 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century fashion collection, she says, but it did “not move into the contemporary”. Apfel’s collection fills that gap. “Iris operates very much like an artist; she is not simply a collector or stylist. She looks at clothing and accessories as a way to sculpt, paint or collage a presence. The way she deals with fashion is highly performative and has a very contemporary feel,” Hartigan says.

The Apfels' gift has encouraged other gifts of fashion and textiles. George Putnam, of Putnam Investments, whose family are from Salem, is endowing a curatorship in fashion and textiles. An evening gown designed by Alexander McQueen in 2007 has also been donated to the museum after it was acquired by a donor. McQueen created the dress in memory of his ancestor Elizabeth Howe, who was a victim of the Salem witch trials in 1692.

“It’s a perfect fit” with the museum, says Apfel, who has been involved in the institution’s education projects, such as bringing in designers for conversations with visitors. She also hopes to plan further exhibitions there.

Apfel says: “I go through life like a sponge, absorbing all kinds of things. I travelled a lot. It’s an accumulation of experiences.” She adds that she puts ensembles together by instinct: “If it feels and looks good, I know it’s right.” Apfel still designs jewellery and accessories, and is due to launch a range of handbags and spectacle frames. She is also a visiting professor of textiles and apparel at the University of Texas.

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