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The June Issue: Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty
The Smithsonian's Inaugural Director of Libraries and Archives talks dressing "like a librarian"
I had been waffling on whether or not to start this newsletter when I came across this Smithsonian Magazine interview with Tamar Evangelestia-Doughterty. Tamar had just been appointed inaugural Director of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, and the magazine wanted readers to get to know her. What kind of books did she read? “I am just going to be truthful here: I like magazines and journals,” Tamar replied. Among her favorites? Vogue Japan. My concern that I’d be seen as frivolous for pursuing my interest in fashion evaporated, and Luxe Libris was born.
For this reason and so many others, I’m delighted Tamar found time in her packed schedule to speak with me. While I looked forward to dishing with Tamar about her favorite designers—something I’ve been curious about as a long-time admirer of her bright, playful sartorial sensibility—I was not prepared for the powerful discussion of race, body image, and other emotional components of fashion that she brought to the interview.
If this is your first encounter with Tamar, trust me when I say that the library field is lucky to have her at the helm of one its largest institutions and serving as a role model for current and future librarians, not only because Tamar is a Black librarian in an overwhelmingly white field, but also because of the care and expertise she brings to discussions around the future of libraries, as evinced in her public speaking appearances, published work, and Twitter feed. Here’s our interview:
Meet Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty
How would you describe your style?
I never really describe my style—that is too much of a commitment. My style has been described by my friends as “elegant bohemian.” In everything I wear, there is always a signature aesthetic of venerable quirkiness. Ngaire Blankenberg, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, recently commented on my footwear—the Marni Mary Jane flatforms, or my Julien David oxfords complete with ruffles. She said, “it’s an ironic librarian vibe,” referring to my ability to wear a piece that appears conventional but on second examination is ironically not conventional.
The designers I gravitate toward are pret-a-porter designers (also known as “ready to wear”) who are noted for fashion with an eclectic bent and are classified as avant-garde. For example, Dries Van Noten, Yohji Yamamoto, Marni, Comme Des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood, Tsumori Chisato, Simone Rocha. Such designers offer sculptural pieces with a lot of volume. Often there are asymmetrical lines, frayed hems, something out of the ordinary. To most, avant-garde fashion is illogical and can be uncomfortable. Caution is required because the pieces can be overwhelming and begin to wear you rather than the other way around. A draw for me is that clothes always echo cultural influences and historical references.
I adore Stella Jean, who is a Haitian designer. As my career advanced to library administration, there was always this tension between avant-garde, whimsical and conventional. In special collections, you must meet donors—some are very conservative and would not understand my showing up to the afternoon tea in a black neoprene Junya Watanabe dress that may be larger than the dining table. However, I would wear that same dress to a Smithsonian evening affair paired with a Stella Jean blouse, as I did last month at the Smithsonian Legacy Society gathering. When it comes to style and fashion you must feel good in what you are wearing. Your attitude while wearing it is the glue that holds everything together. After college graduation, I was anxious because I knew that the black pumps and navy-blue J Crew suit were not for me. A stabilizing influence was my mother. She was odd in that she dressed quite frumpy—I never figured out what was going on with her style. In reflection, I now understand that a lack of money to invest in clothes and her depression over her weight—the lack of designers who focused on clothing for fuller figures—dictated how she dressed. She was a size 14–16 for most of her life. I was a size 0–6 until her death. She suffered from bulimia and while she loved fashion, she never allowed herself the pleasure of experiencing it first-hand. From my early teens, I was her mannequin. She liked my small frame and I served as a muse. While she encouraged me to develop my own sense of style, her style was always there waiting in the wings to cock an eyebrow if I got too crazy. The two of us had some memorable creative process collisions in fitting rooms—especially over shoes. Harmony of hues was important to her—she had an amazing eye for color. Evident were some unconventional elements to her fashion approach regarding color. Red or fuchsia were neutrals to her. She liked pieces to match, and no outfit was complete without accessories. Her strategy was to secure the accessories first and build the outfit from there. Undergarments mattered—slips and stockings. She loved swiss-dotted hosiery.
Mother made me most keenly aware of accessorizing. When I went through a goth period in high school (the blacks and drab browns), I expected her to disapprove, but she went all in, sometimes sneaking in some color or a cool edgy brooch. Over the last few years, I see more pronounced references to her influences in the way I dress. Style can be multi-dimensional in terms of influence. I am part mom, part Tamar, part geography, and psychology. I have blended pieces from avant-garde designers with pieces from more of what one would typify as La Garçonne Style—crisp, fresh clean lines, a bit androgynous but also whimsical. I love Sofie D’hoore who has a very purist aesthetic. Her modern designs are understated but there is sometimes pattern and very enriched color. A navy dress may appear simple but a pocket may be placed slightly off kilter. Apuntob dresses, Sonya Park’s Arts & Science, Bergfabel jackets and skirts have beautiful tailoring, and I love how each piece arrives with a lavender sachet. My clothes are always suggestive of playfulness. There will always be a little girl in me who adores pink. As my style evolves, I have peppered my wardrobe with more practical items. You will see blazers sneaking into the picture but even those are not ordinary—they will be a bright color or have princess sleeves. I cherish my collection of silk kimono jackets. Ironically, they are all from the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art gift shop, but I purchased most of them years before I became Director of Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. My colleagues at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives (SLA) are also inspiring for style. They express what they feel and skillfully combine a mix of tones and textures. Erin Rushing, our Outreach Librarian is always crisp and wears some smashing patterns as does Polly Khater our Associate Director for Discovery Services. I am in good fashion company at SLA.
I love the idea of pushing back on what librarians are expected to wear. Sometimes I worry that an outfit I’ve put together might be too loud for my quiet library, or if I wear a color like pink, I won’t be taken seriously by a colleague or faculty member. Next time I’ll ask, “what would Tamar do?” Where do you find clothes?
The fashion metaverse is enormous. You can quite easily fall into rabbit holes. My approach is holistic but requires discipline and patience because I often go global, shopping in Asian markets and the U.K. at Egg Trading. In some respects, the clothes find me—each piece I own speaks to me in some way. I recall Saturday afternoons with my mother going from thrift shop to thrift shop. I had a good eye for seeing something amazing at the bottom of a huge pile of nothing special. “That skirt was waiting for you to rescue it!” she would laugh. The vintage in thrift shops used to be incredible. Now that has given way to Etsy, eBay, The Real Real. As a multidisciplinary dresser, I frequent a variety of places for clothes. I don’t stick to the traditional boundaries of shopping like Macy’s or other large department stores. I do admit that the announcement of Barneys New York closure was mortifying for me. They carried so many of the designers I loved. In terms of a social narrative on fashion Barneys offered fun, glamour, and whimsy. Not many chains could do that. Jeffrey in the NYC Meatpacking District was another favorite that was a fashion casualty of the pandemic. The lockdown and its influence on the fashion industry is a multi-layered drama. For the merchants and designers, it was a dark chapter. No one wants to really buy clothes just to hang out around the house. No one especially wants to pay $500 for a shirt when you are in quarantine (or even out of quarantine for that matter). The silver lining of the pandemic for fashion collectors like me was that the price of designer clothing was slashed dramatically, but even that was not the best outcome. Stand-alone apparel stores such as Noodle Stories in Los Angeles (a place that I could only really shop at when I was teaching at California Rare Book School at UCLA) or IF Boutique and Oroboro in Soho, Rennes in Philadelphia, Namu in Chicago—all had to pivot toward offering more online shopping to continue to thrive.
In terms of fashion when I was an AUL of Rare and Distinctive Collections at Cornell University, Ithaca was…well I could ascribe a number of words, most of them not especially complimentary, but let’s say Ithaca—the Finger Lakes region—challenged my curatorial sensibilities when it came to fashion. Curation requires discipline and resourcefulness. What the Finger Lakes did offer was a community of artisans in ceramics, wood turning, and jewelry design. Style is also the way you dress your abode. I found great pieces at Hand Works in Ithaca and at Imagine, Skaneateles 300, and Drooz in Skaneateles, NY. So many elements dictate style including geography.
Now that I am in Washington D.C., it is also challenging but not nearly as much as Ithaca was. D.C. has a very conservative tone with flares of preppishness—Virginia pastels and big sun dresses—think Lilly Pulitizer or Trina Turk. Recently in a shoe store a young woman hmpfed at me for looking at a pair of pink Birkenstocks and said, “I only wear those when I am in California.” Tamar being Tamar, I bought them anyway and they look great with my Simone Rocha Mona Lisa dress or my Bergfabel pink suit. But that is pretty much the story of shopping for clothing in D.C. It is not a total wash—GoodWood is now my go-to for vintage jewelry and out-of-the box clothing. They push the fashion envelope just enough to enter the conversation for me. Shopping there is a sensory experience because there are textures and colors, there is nature. Beautiful vintage entomological pins and feathery hats. It is fun. Relish DC is really the only saving grace in D.C. for me when it comes to designer clothing and carries Sofie D’hoore, Dries Van Notes, Sacai and Uma Wang. Additionally, NYC is just a hop, skip and an Acela train ride away for me.
I can’t imagine how fun it would be to drop in and out of these shops with you. Can you tell me about your favorite thing in your closet and how you wear it?
I have genuine connections with all of my clothing—well except for maybe basics like t-shirts. I get fashion sugar highs from every Sofie D’hoore and Bergfabel item in my closet. Sometimes it’s about the colors—the shades of persimmon or citron. When you look at my wardrobe there is a thin demarcation line of what separates the personal from the professional. Normally, I will not purchase a “one wear only” piece. You would be hard pressed to find any black tie anything. I can do black-tie adjacent but full on Oscar gala sort of shopping sends me into a fragile fashion mental state—too much trauma from shopping for my prom dress which ended up being an unconventional Victor Costa gown (unconventional compared to those of my classmates). Whatever I wear, I begin with a blank canvas beginning with my space of comfort and peace. How do I want to feel today? Then I choose the clothes that nurture that inspiration. Nowhere is this clearer than in my day-to-day wardrobe. Summer is the season—I think is where my true fashion sensibilities and silliness shines the brightest. For winter, boots and sweaters are key vehicles for expression. Lots of soft textures, nubby wools. Summer is all about freshly laundered and pressed cottons which is why I like Sofie D’hoore, Apuntob, Daniela Gregis, Paul Harden Shoemakers and Véritécoéur so much in the summer. Minä Perhonen seamlessly blends summer splendidness into winter clothing with his bunny rabbits, knife-pleated skirts, and curated textiles.
Do you have a penchant for a particular clothing item or accessory? (Like, say, Carrie Bradshaw and her thing for shoes.)
I have too much of everything—that is my main problem. I do prefer my spring/summer wardrobe over my fall/winter wardrobe. Sundresses, sandals, floppy hats. Sweaters and wool skirts are great, but summer clothes are so much fun and where I tend to go overboard more. Some designers are more complementary to my sense of style in different seasons. Sofie D’hoore offers the best expression of her design aesthetic in the summer. Comme des Garcone I wear more so during the fall and winter season.
During a Rare Book School course, many years ago, I was speaking with a fellow classmate during a reception. She was admiring a white eyelet vintage dress I had on. (Terry Belanger also remarked on the dress.) This RBS classmate was in Charlottesville wearing glittery Jimmy Choo open toe pumps. We started to discuss fashion. I explained that I respect Jimmy Choo and the shoe and handbag-obsessed but it was never quite my motivation like Carrie Bradshaw—I am more of a dress girl. The classmate explained that she does not buy designer clothes because they do not design for her full-figured body type. But while she may not be able to wear a Prada dress, there are women her size who adore Chanel, Dolce, and Balenciaga as much as thin women. Do designers create any article of clothing beyond a euro size 46? No, so what does a plus-size rare book curator and fashion lover like her do besides being limited to dressing in Lane Bryant , Target, or Gap clothing forever? She can’t afford couture custom designer clothing like Oprah Winfrey or other full-figured celebrities, so she buys designer handbags and shoes. Handbags don’t care how big you are. A size 38 shoe is a size 38 on any woman. Carrie in Sex and the City is not relatable in terms of clothing, but the Jimmy Choo shoes don’t care what your weight is.
This is so true! I also like vintage designer scarves for this reason. You recently made a large donation of vintage clothing to the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection. What can you tell us about that?
It was cathartic yet liberating. Believe me, it was not because I just wanted to give away a life of collecting. Two reasons were behind the donation. (Well, three if you include the curatorial brilliance of Dr. Denise Green, a professor at Cornell University in textiles.) Fashion is an investment. For those who are serious collectors you must allow the items you curate to evolve with your shelf life. There is a distinction between being a collector and an accumulator, which borders hoarding. Toward the end of my mother’s life, she became an accumulator. Still haunted by negative body image issues, she hoarded clothing that was sometimes six sizes too small for her. “Someday I will lose weight to fit this…or give it to Tamar or a neighbor’s daughter.” After her death in 2007, my brother and I were going through her room. There were bags and bags of clothing along with tear outs of fashion magazines. Pages and pages of thin models. Some she scribbled on, “me someday” or “my goal weight.” When I was 130lbs my mother would say “Tamar you need to watch it, you will get fat soon.” That day in her bedroom, the complexity and emotional gravity of her body dissatisfaction, societal perceptions of beauty in America—perceptions which, especially during the periods she lived in the 50’s and 60’s, were anti-Brown and Black women despite “Black is Beautiful” messaging in the 1970’s—her eating “peculiarities,” (the fasting, the binging, the crash diets), the obsession with my weight and clothing, all made sense to me and came to the surface.
I gained weight during the pandemic plus I am getting older and found that I too was self-shaming. Not wanting to repeat unhealthy familial narratives, I had to end that legacy trauma and shut out those inner conversations with her. I got real with myself. I would never fit many clothing items again. There are fashion designers who I love but really only design for the youthful and skinny. They don’t do “Black girl booty.” I have a Black booty. Fashion represents many things. It can be a source of joy but also emotionally exposing. I had “someday when I lose weight” clothing stashed in several boxes. For my own mental well-being, a shift had to culminate in my process around fashion. I did what good owners who love their possessions do—I set them free for someone else to cherish and enjoy. I bought clothes that look good on the new Tamar—extra pounds, cellulite, and all. Now when I purchase a piece I am future-proofing my investment. I must see myself wearing something ten years from now. If I can’t envision that, the piece at least must contribute something significant to the narrative of fashion. Another manifestation of accumulating rather than truly curating a wardrobe is buying clothes because they are on sale. My miscalculation in some investments was my expanding waistline with age. I advise anyone who buys designer clothes to consider investing in one size larger if it is something you want to serve as a narrative piece. For example, the Marni items—and I was a Marni maniac at one time—did not translate well into my 40’s. Much of that went to Cornell. The size was not the issue with Marni because everything is mostly oversize—it was the silhouette and expression that did not align with the current Tamar. Others just no longer fit. The bulk of the collection was formed around 2000 and included pieces from as late as 2021. Mixes of Comme Des Garcons, Dries Van Noten are there. Also an iconic Prada black gown.
Everyone’s closet needs reappraisal and everyone’s style needs revising. Does your current wardrobe “meet the moment” and underscore where you are authentically in the present? To be intensely personal, salvaging clothes that are ill-fitting or not age or life-style appropriate can wreck your presentation. Youthful is an attitude—wearing youthful clothing has nothing to do with it. The clothes I donated to the costume archive are iconic and a reflection of who I once was. On my personal journey of spiritual renovation after the pandemic, the pieces no longer made it to the next series of my finding aid.
Thank you so much Tamar for talking with Luxe Libris! You can find Tamar on Twitter at @evangelestia and on the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Twitter at @SILibraries.
The Victoria and Albert Museum opens its first African fashion exhibition this week, more than 170 years after it was founded.
As long as there is war in Ukraine, Luxe Libris will ask readers to donate to the non-profit forPEACE operating on the ground in neighboring Poland. Please read this update from forPEACE founder Britta Ellwanger.