The March Issue: Quinn Dombrowski
And also, welcome to Luxe Libris!
Welcome to the first issue of Luxe Libris, a little newsletter on the intersection of cultural heritage and fashion. I’m this newsletter’s editrix, Christine Jacobson, a rare book and manuscript librarian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My credentials for helming this masthead, modest one that it is, are thin—I don’t work in a field related to fashion or even textile conservation. I let my Vogue subscription lapse this year. I am, however, armed with a boundless curiosity for how people dress themselves. Each issue of Luxe Libris will feature an interview with someone about their relationship to getting dressed and a few sundry notes from me on what archives and rare books reveal to us about how people have dressed in the past.
Issues will appear in your inbox monthly. Please write to me if you’d like to nominate someone for an interview. (NB: Luxe Libris is not interested in arbitrating who is and who is not “stylish”—all who find joy in dressing are welcome.)
Meet Quinn Dombrowski
The first time I spoke with Quinn face-to-face, they were sporting rainbow-colored glasses and a video filter that transformed their body into the atomic model of the novel Coronavirus. It was the early days of the pandemic, and Quinn had offered to set up a virtual “co-working space” for a small group of librarians who wanted companionship while working in isolation. This was the first of many acts of generosity (and sensational looks) I would come to know Quinn for. Officially, Quinn Dombrowski is the Academic Technology Specialist in the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford University, but they are also the founder of The Data-Sitters Club, a feminist DH pedagogy and research group focused on Ann M. Martin’s 90’s girls series “The Baby-Sitters Club,” and co-founder of Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, an initiative working to identify and archive at-risk sites, digital content, and data in Ukrainian cultural heritage institutions since the war on Ukraine began in February. (To learn more about Quinn’s work organizing SUCHO, check out this wonderful interview with them on Marketplace and consider signing up to volunteer if you can spare the time.) Quinn is also a tireless champion for non-English DH work and runs the Multilingual DH group online in addition to teaching courses in non-English DH at Stanford.
Somehow, on top of all of this, Quinn also finds time to sew beautiful, vibrant clothes—including many from prints they design using digitized collection material. Here’s my interview with Quinn:
How would you describe your style?
Colorful and expressive! Especially on the days I go to campus, I try to dress for particular meetings, or based on my mood, or something I'm excited about. The home-clothes I sew are just things that make me happy, like color-blocked t-shirts, hoodies, and joggers in retro video game or Sailor Moon fabric or the like. Lots of giant pockets: those are non-negotiable. Despite identifying as non-binary (at least in English), I always wear dresses to work, because stitching brightly-colored fabric together and calling it a dress makes it easier to get away with wilder combinations in a somewhat formal setting than if I were to wear separates—even though, fundamentally, the same amount of choice goes into sewing a dress as picking out a top and pants.
I didn't care about clothes as a kid or teenager, and I still don't know from fashion at all. I couldn't name three fashion design brands if I tried, and I have no clue what's currently in style. But the nice thing is, sewing all my clothes (except socks) means I don't need to worry about keeping track of what's in stores. Speaking of socks, ever since high school I've taken the ideological stance that sock-matching is oppressive labor that more people should simply say no to.
Hear hear! You sew clothing for yourself and for your family (and sometimes, for scholars!). How long have you been sewing? Are you self-taught?
I started sewing in 2010 when I was working in IT at UChicago and needed "business casual" clothes, which was not an easy proposition for someone whose dimensions best match a 10-year-old boy! I'm self-taught, and when I started sewing I had an absolutely abysmal spatial imagination, which definitely made everything harder. After a decade of effort, I'm proud to say my spatial imagination skills have improved to merely sub-par. For the first five years, I just sewed with wovens, but after moving to California I inherited a serger from my aunt and discovered the bizarre and delightful world of secret Facebook knit fabric pre-order groups. Things have gone pretty far off the rails since then; most of what I make these days for myself and others uses unusual knit (stretchy) fabrics.
A lot of your clothes are made from prints that feature material from digitized collections. How did that start? How do you know which collections will make a great print?
I've been designing my own fabric and getting it printed (initially at Spoonflower and now also Carriage House Printery) pretty much since the beginning. For a while, I had an outfit to go with each of my major digital humanities projects. One of the first ones was a blouse made from a Bulgarian dialectology data set, and a skirt made from the corresponding map visualization; the skirt eventually became a pair of baby pants. The Public Domain Review is an amazing source of inspiration; I did a whole series of prints using the Japanese design magazine Shin-Bijutsukai. I've also done things from scratch, like turning university library graffiti into a print, or tracing the text of a medieval Slavic manuscript, or assembling British Library bestiary images into a baby book. Sometimes it's hard to tell if something is going to work until you tile it a few different ways.
I am REELING from these examples. What’s your favorite piece you’ve made to date?
So many of my favorite dresses are made using the PhiBobo pattern "Niela's Cool Curved Dress.” But if I had to pick just one favorite piece, it'd have to be my Blueprints for Sewing Moderne jacket. I was one of the pattern testers, and I made it out of a blue Japanese linen with sloths on it. Some of the sloths are wearing jaunty red berets. The pockets are massive, even by my standards: you can fit a large boba tea in them.
Love a jaunty red beret moment! Do you have a penchant for a particular garment type or accessory? (Something like SATC’s Carrie Bradshaw’s love of shoes.)
In February 2020, on a whim, I ordered what I thought were a pair of prescription sunglasses with rainbow frames. They arrived on the day schools and daycares shut down in March 2020... and they were not sunglasses. So I faced my new job of early childhood education teacher wearing these giant rainbow glasses, and in various moments of indulging the pandemic web-shopping impulse, targeted advertising algorithms took notice of the fact that I'd developed a taste for weird glasses. I have a relatively minor prescription, which helps keep things affordable, but I've now amassed quite a selection that I match to my outfits.
I remember those rainbow frames! Would you like to share a book, film, or cultural heritage object with readers of Luxe Libris?
Carol Wallace's All Dressed in White: The Irresistable Rise of the American Wedding is a fascinating look at, in particular, the intersection of wedding practices and clothes. Not that I needed much encouragement to do something other than white for my wedding (we wore somewhat-matching tie-dye), but it was an eye-opening look at how recent most of these "traditions” are.
Somewhat! Matching! Tie-dye! You can find Quinn Dombrowski on Twitter @quinnanya. Thanks for chatting with me Quinn!
“There is Shakespeare for literature, Karinska for costumes”
Last Sunday I went to the ballet. The program was a sublime triple billing that began with George Balanchine’s Chaconne, a ballet he choreographed for the New York City Ballet in 1973 to Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice with an added pas de deux for muses Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. In Chaconne, the dancers go from heaven to earth after Eurdice is restored to life by Cupid and reunited with her husband Orfeo. It depends on the production, but typically there is no change in the set design as the dancers move between worlds—the location change is signalled solely by the costumes and styling. The dancers start with their hair down (a look particularly becoming on Suzanne Farrell), wearing simple skirted leotards that ripple on stage as they move through Balanchine’s slow, elegeic choreography. When Orfeo and Eurdice are restored to their earthly court, the mood is celebratroy, the hair is neatly pinned, and the garments are stiff and brilliant, literally sparkling thanks to jeweled satin bodices. The audience knows intantly that they’ve been transported. The architect of this deft effect is the one and only costume deisgner Barbara Karinska.
Born in Kharkiv, Ukraine to a textile manufacturing family, Karinska was trained from an early age in the art of Ukrainian embroidery. She married and moved to Moscow in 1916, where she would eventually found a couturier and embroidery school, dressing the wives of the Soviet elite in haute couture and teaching needlework to the proletariat. After the death of Lenin, Karinska’s school was seized and nationalized by the state, and Karinska grew concerned authorities would arrest her out-of-work husband. In 1924 she devised a madcap scheme to emigate to Europe under the guise of a tour showcasing Soviet student embroidery in the West. With their visas secured, the family successfully escaped to Europe, jewels sewn into their clothes and dollar bills purchased on the black market hidden between the leaves of their books. Settled in Paris, Karinska met founder of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo René Blum, and her career in costuming began.
Karinska would go on to costume productions for the Ballet Russe and Balanchine in Paris and collaborate with Cecil Beaton in London, but her career as costumière par excellence was founded in the United States. Established in a studio on West 44th street near New York’s theatres, Karinska built an empire, costuming for theatre, ballet, and even Hollywood productions. In 1948 she won the Oscar for her Joan of Arc costumes, and in 1952 was nominated for her work on Hans Christian Andersen.However, it is for her partnership with George Balanchine she is most remembered. She costumed over 75 of his productions during his tenure at the New York City Ballet. He would later generously ascribe half of his success to her costumes and claim, “there is Shakespeare for literature, Karinska for costumes.”
One of the greatest marks left on ballet during her time with Balanchine was the invention of a new tutu. Before Karinska (B.K.), there was the pancake tutu; after Karinska (A.K.) there was the powder puff tutu. The pancake tutu was stiff, wired and wide, which caused it to reverberate long after the dancing had stopped. Karinska’s powder puff tutu was shorter and heavily layered with netting, resulting in a fluffy tutu that not only supported itself sans wire, but also moved fluidly with its wearer. 1 It is now used widely across the ballet world, though Karinska alledgedly made costume designers who trained under her sign a literal blood oath before divulging its exact design.
Of her tutu invention, ardent fan of Balanchine’s NYCB Edward Gorey wrote: “Legend here conjures up an unlikely picture of Karinska; a thin, elegant lady with blue hair, wielding a giant pair of shears, attacks clouds of tartan with enormous energy, and after God knows how many attempts, triumphantly cuts out the Perfect Tutu.”2
The majority of Karinska’s costumes and designs are kept at the New York City Ballet Archives and are not available online, but you can see both her work and Karinska at work in the Martha Swope Photograph Collection at New York Public library. Swope was NYCB’s official photographer for over thirty years and captured Karinska doing all the tasks required of a costumière including making last-minute adjustments to garments, testing out fabrics and tiaras, going over sketches with Balanchine, and showing her costumes to fashion reporters. It’s a remarkable collection of a designer at work, one who was building new worlds by reimagining the length of a skirt or the drape of a blouse.
This week I checked in with my friend Britta who is in Warsaw working with refugees who have left their homes, fleeing from Russia’s war on Ukraine. When I messaged her, she was on her way to deliver 260 meters of cordura fabric to internally displaced Ukrainian women who would use it to sew things needed by the Ukrainian military and draw a temporary salary. I am in awe of the work Britta is doing on the ground in neighboring Poland. You can help her help Ukrainians by donating to her non-profit organization, For Peace.
During the 2020-2021 Belarusian protests, a few Belarusian textile artists began creating what they call “Embroidered Chronicles of Resistance.” Their practice is rooted in sewing traditions that predate widespread literacy, when women used embroidery to record events happening in their lives and communities. Many of these artists have since turned to documenting the war on Ukraine, and selling their work to support Ukrainian refugees. Check out Rufina Bazlova’s work to learn more.
My Houghton Library colleague Dorothy Berry has a new article out in her “Archives Unbound” column for JStore Daily on the 19th-century American Black clothier Elizabeth Keckley. Formerly enslaved, Keckley purchased her manumission and went on to become First Lady Mary Lincoln Todd’s personal dressmaker and stylist. Berry unpacks language decisions Keckley made in her 1868 memoir Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House as a jumping off point for discussing reparative description work in archives.
Alex Johnson has a review out in Fine Books and Collections Magazine on the Brontë Parsonage Museum’s exhibition Defying Expectations: Inside Charlotte Brontë’s Wardrobe.
“The Story of the Tutu” by Victoria Looseleaf, October 1, 2007. Dance Magazine. https://www.dancemagazine.com/the-story-of-the-tutu/
Foreward by Edward Gorey in Costumes by Karinska by Toni Bentley, Harry N. Abrams Publishing, 1995.