Good morning, Teachers Write campers! Your Monday Morning Warm-Up with Jo is here.
Today’s a special day because I get to introduce you to a brilliant debut author who’s also a friend.
Margaret Powell is a decorative arts historian from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the Curatorial Assistant of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie Museum of Art and she writes about fashion history on her website www.hiddenfashionhistory.com. Margaret and I are the co-authors of an upcoming picture book called ONLY THE BEST: THE EXCEPTIONAL LIFE AND FASHION OF ANN LOWE, coming soon from Chronicle Books. (We don’t have a cover to share quite yet, but it’s being illustrated by Erin Robinson, and we’re both so excited!) Margaret’s post this morning is all about biographical research!
Digging into Biographical Research
I started learning about Ann Lowe during an internship in 2011. The chief curator wanted to know more about the designer of a dress in our collection and the existing scholarship available about Ann at that time boiled down to brief profiles in two 1980s books about African American fashion designers and a journal article written in the late 90s for the Alabama Historical Society. Not a lot of info, but they led me to a magazine interview Ann gave in the 1960s. Her story fascinated me, but from source to source, many details about her life were inconsistent.
Working to make sense of those mixed up facts turned into my masters thesis and this was the first biographical research I ever really attempted. To have enough information for my thesis, I needed dresses to study, former clients to interview and hopefully, some family members. Ann’s career spanned sixty years and three states: Alabama, Florida, and New York. I had the budget of a student, so research trips were limited and finding primary sources was a challenge.
A lot of Ann’s dresses are in museums, but the biggest collections nearby were not available for research that summer. The Metropolitan Museum had ten, but they were renovating the Costume Institute. The Smithsonian had a few, but those were caught up in inventory and research for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. The JFK library held Ann’s most famous work: Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. That dress was permanently off limits to researchers (especially students!) because of condition issues. With all of those barriers, I wasn’t sure where to start at first, but then I thought about newspapers. Newspapers are a fabulous starting point!
All in all, my strongest research has been a result of interviews (in person and over the phone), but those take time to arrange, so they usually won’t be your first step. At the beginning of biographical research, newspapers and public records can give you the info you need to track down those living people. Genealogybank.com is my favorite website for this, because of their strong regional newspaper offerings, but if you have a membership with Ancestry.com, or one of the other genealogy sites, or even the New York Times, you already have access to some extensive newspaper archives.
What are you looking for? If your subject is well known, there could be interviews, profiles, book and tv reviews. Ann wasn’t well known, but she had a lot of well known clients and she created dresses for one of the most popular annual events in Tampa: the Gasparilla festival. Ann’s dresses show up on the front page of the Tampa Tribune throughout the 1920s and they are also described in detail inside.
Ann is never named here, but when I learned about her Gasparilla work, the rest was easy. The names of her customers led me to living granddaughters of those customers, and one of those ladies even mailed me an Ann Lowe dress to borrow for my research!
Obituaries may be the first link to finding living relatives. Wedding announcements will also help you to keep track of name changes.
The census can be another treasure trove of information and give you countless jumping off points. Google Books and Archive.org often have full scans of directories and trade journals from professional organizations. If your subject was a professional or an artisan, you may be able to find information that way.
Your Assignment: Choose someone you’d like to research. What can you find out about your subject through public records (the census, marriage, military, and death records), newspaper and genealogy websites? Has your subject ever given interviews to magazines or on television?
If you wish to keep going, on your own, create a list of five living people associated with your subject and reach out to them for interviews. Interviews can be in person, over the phone, or in writing (I started with a questionnaire to send out to a dozen of Ann’s former clients. Five of those people replied). These can surprise you. Descendants of Ann Lowe’s business partners, and a few of Ann Lowe’s 1960s bridal customers have been my greatest help! I hope you have fun while you uncover some interesting information about your subject!
As always, feel free to share a bit of your thinking in the comments today to continue the conversation!