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The February Issue: Rhiannon K
on dressing like Lord Nelson and spelunking in a mountain of $2 clothes
I met Rhiannon through a mutual friend at New York’s Bibliography Week in 2020. Rhiannon had arranged to give our friend a tour of the Christie’s book department, where she works as a specialist, and allowed me to tag along. At the time, I didn’t know much about early printing—Rhiannon’s particular area of expertise (though her knowledge is wide-ranging)—but she walked us through the books she placed into our hands, translating the Latin colophons and revealing their publication histories and provenance. I learned that day about genitures (birth charts used in astrology) and pored over a book that included Plato’s birth chart (he was an Aquarius, it turns out), and I recall Rhiannon’s command of the books she temporarily stewarded, cataloged, and sent to auction. Compared with the years or decades many librarians get to spend with their collections, Rhiannon’s work struck me as particularly intellectually challenging, and the ease with which she seemed to do it was majestic. Of course, I also admired her crown of braids and the long herringbone scarf she wore tossed over her blazer. Since that first meeting, we’ve stayed in touch, chatting over DMs about books and clothes (mostly the latter).
Rhiannon’s official title is Specialist in the Books and Manuscripts Department at Christie’s where she works with early printed books, history of science material, and European/Colonial Americana. Generous with her time and expertise, Rhiannon has lectured on book collecting in the digital age, contributed works in her personal collection to Grolier Club exhibitions, and written about the uncelebrated labor of important female bibliographers like Lucy Osborne. Rhiannon has an enviable talent for discussing everything from early print history to alchemy in an approachable and compelling way, which shone through our discussion. Here’s our interview:
Tell me a little about your role at Christie’s. What are some recent auctions you've been excited about?
I’m a specialist in the books department, part of an international team that puts together auctions of books, manuscripts, and sometimes “historical artifacts.” I specialize in early European printing and intellectual history, but I once catalogued a can of milk that went to the South Pole with Amundsen. We do everything from finding people who want to sell their books, appraising and estimating, cataloging (which involves collating the book, identifying the material and era of the binding, any faults or extra surprises, etc., as well as writing a short historical note on the content), setting up the pre-sale exhibition, and then actually selling the books. After the auction, you do it all over again. My job is balanced between very client-oriented activities—meetings, receptions, conversations of all kinds—and a more goblin-like existence that involves me at my desk cataloging and writing, usually surrounded by reference books and a million cups (with lids).
Last year we sold the private collection of the beloved book dealer William S. Reese, which allowed me to do a deep dive into the earliest books published about the Americas, as well as the beginning of print in North America. It is a collecting area that has been important for a long time now, but there is still a lot more to say about the roles of women and Native Americans in the infancy of print in America. One of my bibliographic heroes, Margaret Stillwell, actually wrote a book called Incunabula and Americana which introduces both topics and discusses how they are similar and involve many of the same skills and questions.
I think I must mention here that that Christie’s just sold the collection of André Leon Talley! While there were a few books, my department was mostly involved because of the “historical artifact” angle. We tend to be brought in to help when a big estate collection is not necessarily book-heavy, but has an importance and value beyond the objects themselves because of the historical significance of the material. Of course it has been a big treat to be involved with ALT’s collection even in a small way, and an honor to help them go to new homes while supporting the institutions he named in his will. The auction had heavy participation by museums, which really cements the importance of fashion history as a serious subject.
I’m so thrilled you got to work with that collection. The lots were incredible. What's something you think most people wouldn't know about working at an auction house?
All our exhibitions are free and open to the public. For books, that usually means essentially the creation of a public reading room, where people can come look at all the lots in the sale. You don’t have to be a known client, or rich, or even a buyer at all. There is usually a specialist somewhere nearby who is happy to share our enthusiasm for the material. I often bring in tour groups and visiting classes to see our sales. I enjoy seeing all the different ways that people relate to these objects, from collectors and scholars to just people who’ve stopped by out of curiosity and are amazed to discover there is something to which they have a personal connection in our galleries. If you as a scholar or librarian have questions about an item or need extra pictures, you can also just write us an email! You don’t have to pretend to be a potential bidder! I am really happy to help, time permitting.
It is amazing to come to work every day and walk through the galleries and see what incredible things are passing through our sale rooms. It’s a museum that changes every week—not just the items, but the shape of the galleries themselves. I sometimes walk in expecting to see a door but there is now a wall (or vice versa!).
How would you describe your style?
Costumey is a bit of a bad word in fashion, I think, but my parents are former professional ballroom dancers—and my mother was previously a theater seamstress. I grew up around a lot of sequins and ball gowns, and that has definitely impacted my sense of style. Getting dressed every day feels like putting on a costume to me. But of course, I also just love costumes! At the black-tie Grolier dinner reception last year, a friend told me I looked like a “Masonic debutante.” Mission accomplished. Once, my boss and I were invited to the opening of a Poe exhibition at the Providence Athenaeum, the invitation for which stated we were encouraged to wear our Victorian Gothic best. When I met up with her in the hotel lobby, I was decked out in black lace complete with veil, and she was dressed extremely normally. Upon arrival, it was very clear I was the only one in costume not being paid to be there. But no regrets here.
Practically speaking, I like clothes in rich, natural fibers that don’t touch my body in very many places. I am not a believer in the fashion rule of “loose on top, tight on bottom or vice versa.” Loose on top and bottom, tuck in at the waist. I guess I just want to feel wrapped in a cloud. Or a blanket. In the last few years, I have become interested in mid-century American sportswear—silhouettes that women would have worn in college in the 1940s, basically. I admire this period because I feel like they are clothes that are made to move in and to be durable, but which retain a sort of formality. They can take me from appraising a collection in a weird basement to my desk at work, to happy hour drinks. They provide a basic template which can be dressed up or down or sideways—incorporating slightly more costumey ideas. One of my favorite cold-weather outfits I refer to as “rug.” Heavy, almost upholstery fabrics, layers, wool, and of course, yarn tassel earrings. But the basis is just a pleated skirt and sweater. I have a few dresses that verge a bit into eccentric territory that I bought during especially stressful parts of the pandemic. My clothes have definitely gotten even weirder since then. I’ve really been enjoying kaftans—truly a versatile garment.
When I started at Christie’s, I asked my boss at the time if I had to wear a suit every day. He responded that men did, but he found it hard to define how women were supposed to dress. Both at Christie’s and my previous jobs, I was often mistaken for an intern or gallery assistant when I first started, and I quickly found that it did not really matter how “grown up” or formal I tried to dress. Some people will always make the same assumptions about you. I have a complicated relationship with suits. They don’t quite do for me what I want them to. My latest strategy (aided by a few new gray hairs) is to project formality through fabrics and cuts, but otherwise just be myself. Like probably most people, I want to look neat and put-together at work. But I think looking slightly out of place or even a bit weird can be helpful in making it more difficult to slot you into a preconceived role. As an introvert, I also find it aids in making connections with people and breaking the ice.
I love dressing up, but I don’t want to have to dress up like an expert—I am an expert. I’d rather dress up like Neapolitan ice cream. An ice cream who knows a lot about early printing.
Masonic! Debutante! So much of what you’ve said here really resonates with me, and probably many other women in the GLAM profession. The dress code in many of our spaces is very clear for men, but less so for women and non-binary colleagues. That gives us more freedom and flexibility, but also poses challenges to making our credibility as experts legible. Where do you find your clothes?
Amazing as it is to say now, the first time I really had money to buy clothes was in graduate school. Prior to that, I mostly wore hand-me-downs; I had no money at all, and in college in rural Virginia, really no place to spend it on clothes even if I did. It really didn’t bother me at the time, although I do have a painful memory of a classmate very earnestly telling me how cool it was that I obviously did not care how I looked. Oops! Actually, I care a lot about how I look and how things look in general. It just didn’t feel attainable to me then. But when I got my first graduate stipend paycheck, I immediately went to American Apparel and bought a pair of ridiculously high-waisted black jeans. Which I still have! I was lucky to be in Los Angeles, where I had access to great second-hand shopping. Much of my wardrobe to this day is from the Crossroads on Melrose Ave. Near my apartment in West Hollywood there was also a place we called “the two-dollar clothing store.” It was just an empty storefront with a giant pile of clothing in the center. Like a mountain. And at any given time, various people sort of diving through it like children in a ball pit. Everything, as it says on the tin, was $2. I think they were leftover clothes from movie shoots? One of my favorite shirts to this day is from there—a mustard yellow men’s short-sleeve button down.
Online consignment has been a big game changer of course. A lot of favorite items come from Etsy shops and Poshmark. But in the end I think it is hard to score big vintage shopping when you can’t see and touch things in person. I was that annoying child who touched everything on every rack in the store. I still remember an encounter with a wool Armani pencil skirt that when I touched it, I realized for the first time WOW. This is how fabric can feel. No more polyester for me, baby. Recently I moved to Tarrytown, NY where there are amazing thrift/vintage shops a short walk from my home. I just stop by every so often and browse the new arrivals. There is a lot to learn about fibers and construction from just looking through the racks. Much like with books, there are a lot of things that cannot be communicated through the online facsimile.
Tell me about your favorite thing in your closet and how you wear it.
The category I left out from the above question is “stolen from my parents.” And probably my favorite item of clothing at the moment is a gigantic emerald-green silk men’s button down that once belonged to my father. It surely must be from the 1980s. While writing this, I called my mother and she told me she bought the shirt for him. I can’t imagine where I would even go to find something like this now. She used to shop a lot at the Nordstrom Rack in Seattle. The color is vivid and it’s incredibly buttery and smooth. Tragically, it is starting to deteriorate a bit and I’ve repaired the shoulders a few times now. I will certainly keep wearing it until it literally disintegrates. I wear it with the sleeves rolled up and tucked into a skirt or wide-legged pants. Perhaps it looks ridiculous! But to me, it is perfect. Sumptuous fabric, bright color, billowy but easy to tuck in. In my imagination at least, the fabric brings a level of formality that somewhat tempers the clownishness of wearing this giant, brightly colored shirt.
Do you have any style icons?
I know it is painfully basic to say Katharine Hepburn here, but well, it’s true! She has been my hero since I was a kid and I think (hope?) it shows in how I dress now. I think now it can be hard to fully appreciate the androgyny in her style, since not only are pants for women normal, but I think caring at all about how you dress is often parsed as “feminine” so mixing of elements can go unappreciated. I perceive my own style to be somewhat androgynous but I’m not really sure how well it comes across. If I wear a bow in my hair, am I dressing like a little girl or like George Washington? I want to look like Lord Nelson. My other major icon from childhood is David Bowie. Not that I’m copying outfits or anything, but he expanded my view of what clothing can do and be. Growing up in the aughts, Helena Bonham Carter was a major icon. Her big floofy hair and eccentric red-carpet outfits were a very welcome antidote to…whatever was going on with y2k fashion.
Old Master paintings and other historical images also provide a lot of style ideas. I am lucky to work with Old Master Paintings specialist Jonquil O’Reilly, who writes on Renaissance art and fashion. Her Instagram and various essays (and her outfits!) are all major inspirations. I just saw the Tudors show at the Met and am still contemplating the Rainbow Portrait. Her stole with the realistic eyes and ears…incredible!!”
I also love looking at old yearbooks from my college (a former women’s college in the South) as well as other women’s colleges. Many of the students were buying and reappropriating garments from Brooks Brothers, before they sold women’s clothing. We have talked before about Claire McCardell, who is a designer I really admire. Margaret Stillwell, my aforementioned bibliographic hero, writes in her memoir Librarians are Human about her interest in fashion during this period—and about the time she was accidentally hired by McCalls while trying to buy a pattern from them for her mother!
Today, Rosie Assoulin and Simone Rocha always catch my eye, but none of their items have made their way into my wardrobe (yet). I just about died when the Tarot-themed Dior collection came out. That’s pretty much my dream wardrobe. Actually, many of my favorite thrifted items are Dior. I have a pink-and-white striped Dior pajama top which is perfect for those days at work when I know it’s going to be a slog and I just want to be comfy. But it’s Dior! So I have some dignity left.
Do you have a penchant for a particular clothing item or accessory?
In another life I might have been a brooch person, but as a young student working abroad in Tunisia, I had fun haggling in the souk for various textiles and brought home, among other things, a green silk scarf. Fast forward fifteen years later and I’m beginning to contemplate furniture devoted to scarf storage. Printed silk scarves are a wonderful and subtle way to “wear” art, as well as simply versatile garments. Neckerchief. Hair scarf. Cover the stain on your shirt. Encircle your whole body. I just want to be swaddled in silk and wool for the rest of my life, okay?
Obviously, museum gift shops are a goldmine here, but I have also nabbed a vintage fencing-manual-themed Hermes scarf of which I am quite proud. I really love the work of the artist Logan Spector, who sells scarves as Logandria. My most recent acquisition is her anatomical Venus / cabinet of curiosities-themed scarf, which is absolutely gorgeous, gigantic, and contains two secret sonnets. I tend towards the square scarf for versatility purposes, but there are always exceptions. I have a long rectangle scarf with a design of Goethe’s color theory on it, which was sold at the gift shop in Berlin for an exhibition I co-curated on the history of alchemy and art.
A close second answer to this question for me, however, is PLEATS. Pleated shirts, skirts, but also and especially pleated pants. I love pleated pants so much—perfect garment. My ideal pants basically look like a skirt but are pants, made from wool or linen. Just above the ankle, so I can wear tights under them in the winter. I’m always on the lookout. My favorite vintage finds are from Ralph Lauren and Escada, but the recent trendiness of culottes has been a boon.
I would like to join you in being swaddled in wool and silk the rest of my days, which reminds me of LL’s October gal Molly Brown and her brilliant coinage of “textile-based support,” something we could all use a little of. Would you like to share a book, film, or cultural heritage object with readers of Luxe Libris?
A few years ago I sold a copy of Isabella Catanea Parasole’s lace pattern book, Teatro delle nobili et virtuose donne dove si rappresentano varii disegni di lavori nouamente inuentati, et disegnati, printed in 1636. It wasn’t the first edition and it wasn’t even complete—as is the case with many surviving pattern books, which were thoroughly used by their owners. This copy was special because it was bound for its dedicatee, Vittoria della Rovere, Grand Duchess of Tuscany. Parasole was both a textile designer and a book illustrator who produced a number of lace pattern books all dedicated to aristocratic women. She was also known, however, for her botanical illustrations; she did the designs for Castore Durant’s 1585 herbal, and was invited by Federico Cesi to illustrate a publication on his gardens at Acquasparta. Although that publication never came to fruition, the “Mexican Treasury” contains some woodcuts based on her work.
I have real soft spot for illustrated manuals of all kinds, but this one stuck with me for a number of reasons. I am very interested in Cesi and his role in the history of science and understanding the world through collecting in the sixteenth century. This book reveals the intimacy between seemingly disparate fields—fashion history is bound up with the history of technology and science as well as visual cultures writ large. Another example of this, of course, is the work of Maria Sibylla Merian—famous for her observations on the metamorphosis of insects, she also created embroidery designs of plants and insects surely inspired by her scientific explorations. This rather unassuming book provides a window into the networks of early modern women, scientists, and craftspeople who shaped the period.
Thank you so much for chatting with Luxe Libris, Rhiannon! You can find her on Instagram at @liber.librum.aperit.
André Leon Talley’s collection may be sold, but you can still take a virtual tour of it here.
If you were as captivated as I was by Avery Trufelman’s third season of Articles of Interest, American Ivy, you will love Harper’s Bazaar’s six-part series deep-dive into prep, covering Trufelman’s work, Black culture’s influence on prep, the roots of the current prep craze, and more.
One of my favorite contemporary designers, Rachel Comey, has launched a collaboration with the New York Review of Books. I still haven’t decided whether I think this is good or bad, cool, or deeply uncool, but Mary Sollis at the Times interviewed some of the attendees at the collection launch party, which gave us gems like, “Would you ever wear a garment with your own byline on it? No. Would you?” and “What do you like to wear when you write? I usually have a fun sock on.”
February marks the grim anniversary of Russian’s war on Ukraine. Our friends at ForPeace are helping Ukrainians get through the winter with winter clothes, generators, solar panels, and water filtration systems. Help them help Ukrainians in need by donating today.
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