Long before she devised the dazzling “Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity” exhibition that, since late June, has been transporting visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago to some of the most ravishing streets, parks, theaters, homes and dressing rooms of 19th century Paris, Gloria Groom was known for displaying her own sense of artful dressing.
With her wild hair pinned haphazardly atop her head, and her mix-and-match outfits assembled from vintage, designer and inexpensive knockoffs, Groom has had a bohemian chic that has long set her apart from the many men-in-suits at the museum. Yet no one has been distracted by the stylish window-dressing. This summer, Groom had the distinction of being named the Art Institute’s first “senior curator” — an acknowledgment of “her significant contributions to the museum and her exemplary work across the range of curatorial responsibilities.”
So what are the elements of Groom’s personal style? After strolling through the exhibition (where, as a friend cannily observed, “We know these Impressionist paintings as things unto themselves, but then out of the blue we see the 3-D objects — the dresses, shoes, hats, gloves, corsets — that make you ask, ‘Which is more real?’”), I sat down with Groom to talk fashion.
Q. Were you obsessed with fashion from childhood?, A. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in what was very much a Sears, Roebuck family. But I sewed, and studied a bit of fashion design, and made hot pants from patterns. And I’d go to garage sales and vintage shops. Much later, I wrote my doctorate on the painter Edouard Vuillard, who was the son of a corset-maker, and was obsessed with fabrics, which I also love.
Q. What was your first great fashion purchase? A. When I was 25 and studying in Paris for the first time, I went to a flea market at the American Church, on the Quai d’Orsay, and bought a voluminous black silk skirt. I could dress it up or dress it down, and I wore it to death for the entire three years I was in Paris.
Q. What is your overall fashion philosophy? A. No matchy-matchy. I have very few “ensembles” — things by one designer meant to be worn together. I have exactly one suit, and I never wear pants. I like the eclectic look, so just as in the paintings in this exhibition, where you see polka dots and stripes together, or upholstery fabric mixed with fine, transparent fabrics, I like to mix a T-shirt with a silk skirt. I like mixing vintage with modern, H&M with a designer piece. I like cruising through stores, from Marshall’s to Neiman’s, just looking for ideas. I was truly sorry when they closed Filene’s, because that was a place where I could find so many amazing, surprising things. Of course I know little places in Paris, and I love the funky area around the Marais district.
Q. Do you have a favorite contemporary designer? A. I like Rebecca Taylor [visit www.rebeccataylor.com], the New Zealand-born, New York-based designer who does a mix of romantic and modern, and uses twills and silks. In the museum we all tend to wear black during the day so we can make a quick transition for evening events. And we wear comfortable, rubber-soled shoes, because we put on a lot of mileage. We keep dressy shoes — my favorites have ankle straps — under our desks.
Q. Were you tempted to try on any of the dresses in the show? A. I was tempted, but I was not allowed to touch anything. Costume conservators are great specialists and very particular about the handling of these dresses and hats because they are so fragile. I would love to own the blue-black dress in Manet’s “The Parisienne.” And I would die for that Charles Worth gown with the starburst design in a deep brown color.
Q. What do you think about the way Chicago women dress at the moment? A. Being in the museum world, I’m around some serious fashionistas. But I loved some of what I saw at Lollapalooza this summer where some of the girls had quite extravagant outfits — a lot of lace and crochet work, and flowers in the hair. Even the cutoffs had a crafted look.
Q. Are your clothes closets arranged in any special way? A. Just summer and winter, with one or the other in storage in the basement.
Q. Your husband loaned the exhibit that 19th century military uniform in vibrant blue with a red stripe down the pants leg. How did he get hold of it? A. He is a maker of toy soldiers and is involved in the world of re-enactments, so he has been collecting such uniforms for years.
Q. Is your home decorated in late 19th century French style? A. We have a 1904 Arts & Crafts-style house loaded with 19th century stuff, but I dream about living in a cube. We could only change it all if we moved, so my husband and I make a point of staying at super-sleek contemporary hotels when we travel, just to cleanse the palate.
Q. The exhibit contains a wonderful little display of vintage Guerlain perfume bottles. Do you like their scents? A. I do; they are 1930s womanly perfumes. But mostly I use Jo Malone fragrances, which are so fresh and not strong. And I had a bottle of Chanel Noir I really liked, but it’s gone.