Brazil’s first fashion history museum

This week my evenings have been spent at an orientation seminar for the Fashion and Textiles Studies MA program at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  Taking part in this program has been a dream at least seven years in the making, and naturally I am excitedly looking ahead to possible thesis topics and where in the world my research could take me.  One idea I had was to head back to Brazil, where my family is from (free lodging, yay!).  I was curious if an interest in fashion history has taken hold over there the way it has here in the States, and while the interest is nowhere near as strong as it is here, I learned that earlier this year there had just opened their first museum dedicated to fashion history.

An entire museum dedicated to the history of fashion.

Could it be as good as it seems?  I took the liberty of translating from Portuguese to English what the museum’s website says about the project:

Milka Wolff presents one of her major projects:  The Fashion Museum (MUM) in Canela, Rio Grande do Sul.  A visual reconstruction of 4,000 years of female dress.  A mark on the world’s stage.

Its 2,500 square meters take you on a travel through time, telling the tale of 4,000 years of female dress.  The pieces were constructed according to the research of the founder and designer Milka Wolff and the museum’s curator, Debora Elman.  The fabrics, the dyes, the construction of the pieces, as well as the details and accessories, rigorously conform to the period they represent.

The visitor travels back in time to 2000 B.C., dazzled by dresses made by hand until 1709 A.C. when the first sewing machine was made, up to modern day.  The visitor also will find items procured in antique shops from various countries.

So this entire museum is reproduction historical costume, with a smattering of vintage pieces thrown in.  Who is Milka Wolff, what are her credentials?  As far as I can tell, she is a Brazilian designer.  I haven’t found any evidence of credible factual research, no publications, no higher degree, nothing.  And apparently these items on display “rigorously conform to the period they represent,” but it looks like the construction of all items post-1709 were done by machine.

My question to you is…is this OK?  We have extant garments dating back a few centuries–just take a look at the two largest costume collections of the world, belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.  As costume historians, we accept those extant garments as valuable relics of art.  But what about dress from even more ancient cultures, like Babylonian or Etruscan civilizations–is it OK for a museum to display a representation of what we think their clothing would look like?

If you visit a natural history museum, chances are you will see a sculpture representing a Triceratops or Tyrannosaurus Rex in full flesh–I know that those certainly do have an impact on helping me visualize what those creatures may have looked like, much more so than just marveling at a near-complete set of fossils arranged to show a skeleton shape.  Does the same principle hold true for the history of dress?

I have often toyed with the idea of finding gallery space and displaying my costumes on mannequins as works of art–I think that I could put together a nice presentation showing the same body clothed and accessorized in fashions of the time in a period spanning about 500 years.  Is that the same thing?  Does the scale matter?  I’m not opening an entire 2,500 square meter museum claiming to showcase 4,000 years of women’s dress, I’m just aiming to take the viewer through a selection of the work that I have done over the past few years because I’m proud of some of my costumes–is that what Milka Wolff is doing, too?

So let’s take a look at some of Milka Wolff’s creations.

Do reproduction movie costumes belong in a setting like this, without the distinction of them being movie costumes?

You’d think there would be a whole lot more Carmen Miranda going on, too–national treasure and all.

If you would like to explore more about MUM, please visit their website,

I couldn’t resist.  Here are a couple more images I pulled from her site:


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15 Responses to Brazil’s first fashion history museum

  1. Sarah says:

    Hmmm… Those are all really powerful questions. My thoughts are two-fold: One, yes, reproduction costume can be utilized in a museum setting when you’re talking about extinct cultures, such as the Minoans or Ancient Celts. These are cultures where we have really only a limited idea of what constituted clothing for them based on the material artifacts that have survived thousands of years. Showing a reproduction garment in this setting would be your only choice other than not showing any clothing at all. If you’re going for later cultures with a lot of extant clothing like the 18th and 19th centuries, then it’s in your best interest to get your hands on the real deal for display.

    Secondly, what’s going on here with Milka Wolff seems a lot more like displaying art objects rather than historical objects, but it sounds an awful lot like there’s no hard distinction being made between the two. She’s putting her work out there as the authority on what was worn “back then” which is really dangerous, especially when she’s the only game in town. And the first sewing machine dating to 1709? Uh… That’s news to me. The first commercially available sewing machine wasn’t marketed until the 1830s-40s. Although an Englishman *did* draw up a patent in *1790* for a sewing machine, but it apparently never did make it out of development. And that’s just looking at Wikipedia… If she’d done even that much, she would know this. 😛

    So, yeah. This sounds like a vanity project to me, and it’s troubling that someone with such limited knowledge is putting herself out there as an authority. Go to Brazil and set them straight, girl! 😉

    • wearwhenwhy says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head on the lack of distinction between art objects vs. historical objects, Sarah. It’s one thing to say that the work that we do when we re-create the dress from another era is our own art form, but it’s another for us to present our creations as historical fact. Sure, Wolff could have presented this museum as a lifetime’s work in meticulous research and creation of clothing from the last 4,000 years (which is insanely mind-boggling! Costume historians can spend a lifetime just focusing on one era!) and presenting her findings and theories. But any validity of her work is swept under the rug. Her only backup seems to be prints of famous paintings (e.g., Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa) displayed behind some works). Granted, I haven’t actually been to the museum, but at least that’s what appears to be based on the images in her gallery.

      And, yeah, I think that the 1709 date is a typo–but even if the first full patent for a sewing machine was dated 1790, it isn’t for another hundred years that it really influences the way society dresses. Home sewing was still the norm, and clothes were made and re-made by hand. There are so many studies on Victorian-era hand stitches–if she skipped right over that straight into machine sewing, she’s disregarding a big part of fashion history. And anyway, if there is such a glaring typo on the first page of her museum’s website, it makes me a little uneasy to encounter any more “facts” she may present.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence about Brazil! Some of the “sexier” Brazilian fashion research that’s out there has to do with Afro-Brazilian slave culture, but I know there will be familiar topics as I dip my toe into those research waters–Brazil was, after all, a European colony just like the U.S. was. Some of the amusing tidbits I’ve uncovered so far were how the first colonists insisted on wearing the same late sixteenth/early seventeenth century heavy fabrics popular back home in Portugal…even though velvet really has no place in the tropical humidity. Suffering for fashion, much?

  2. Trystan says:

    I think it *could* be done well, but I’m not sure this Brazilian version is really the best example. Certainly for eras where there are few or no extant examples of dress, carefully documented reproductions are the only way to show what could have been worn. And even for eras where examples exist, getting a good representation in one room could be difficult bec. so much is already spread around in different collections, so I can see making repros of some iconic styles just to have them represented in one big historical fashion overview exhibit.

    BUT the whole thing would have to be well documented so viewers understand that everything is a reproduction, not the real thing. Just like when fossil skeletons are reassembled & repro parts are added to make a whole dinosaur from what few authentic pieces survived.

    I really would NOT include movie costumes tho. That’s a separate display, e.g. “Hollywood history, fact vs. fiction,” or something similar. It’s too complicated to mix up what’s right & wrong in movie versions of historical costume if you’re trying to give an overview of fashion history.

    • wearwhenwhy says:

      I think it *could* be done well, too, but it hasn’t been done here. It’s an undocumented mishmash of a little bit of everything spanning 4,000 years, PLUS movie costumes, PLUS Carmen Miranda…I’m sorry, but a reproduction of the green velvet dress from MGM’s Gone With the Wind does not have a place in marking an important moment in fashion history.

  3. Loren says:

    Really interesting question. Many museums have replicas displayed amongst their historical clothing, Kyoto (replica hats) and Williamsburg’s Dewitt Wallace (at least one gown) are the ones that immediately come to mind. I like seeing repros and hearing how museums reproduced them using period techniques and materials. I don’t know that this falls into that category though. While the costumes look beautiful I guess I see that more as art than any form of historical dress.

    • wearwhenwhy says:

      I don’t have a problem with museums using quality reproductions to make a valid point, but I do expect credible documentation and reasoning behind their construction theories. We know that the folks at Williamsburg are held to a very high standard, and their construction methods are backed up by meticulous research. Wolff’s work just seems to be…costume-y. And I certainly don’t mean the scholarly definition of “costume,” i.e., a mode of dress belonging to a particular group of people in a particular time.

      I can think of several costumers I’ve met in person whose recreation of historical costume could do well in an environment like this (a couple of Cathy Hay’s creations come to mind, for example). I can imagine an exhibition of costumes replicated to the nth degree fulfilling a role in an environment like this, but WITH some sort of backup to historical “facts,” such as images (paintings, fashion plates), documents like patents for stays or bustles, documents detailing sewing and cutting techniques, etc., etc., etc. I’m not convinced Wolff’s museum exhibits anywhere near that level of detail.

  4. Andrew says:

    I don’t really understand why this woman had to call this a “Museum of Fashion,” as I feel that’s being a bit dishonest. Many ignorant people will probably walk into that space and assume everything they’re looking at is actually authentic. If I were her, I would have just advertised as a gallery of my work, although I suppose that wouldn’t be as enticing to potential visitors.

    What’s worse is that I can tell just from looking at these pictures that most of those dresses are woefully inaccurate and stylized. The back of that robe a la francaise doesn’t even look correctly constructed.

    • wearwhenwhy says:

      I agree that the project is misnamed–but I get the feeling that Wolff envisions what she has created as an all-encompassing, authoritative portfolio of women’s fashion from the last 4,000 years, and therefore is perfectly named. And, as she is the first person in the whole darn country to attempt something like that, she has nobody stopping her or even challenging her. What’s sad is that those who are ignorant of the facts but bear an interest in fashion history will see this museum (which was lauded in the press, BTW–I forgot to mention that in the post) and take it as Gospel truth.

      And don’t get me started on that francaise…or on the 17th century Spanish ensemble…I don’t think that it would take much to point out construction and design errors in many of her works!

  5. Alyxx says:

    So much I agree with has already been said… the only thin I have to add is that if she is the first person to attempt an exhibit of something like this, maybe it’s showing or inspiring a trend for people in her country to become interested in historical dress, do research, mount exhibits of REAL extant garments, etc. From what I can see, it can only get better from here!

  6. Mme. Mean says:

    Besides those questionable reproductions, the Museum has another problems, like wrong information being given to visitors, concerning dates, materials and historical characters. They made a reasonable job at researching textiles and prints, but that’s all.

    • J. Leia Lima says:

      That’s tough to hear…museums all over the world are muddled with historical blunders here and there, but this particular endeavor seems like such an enormous undertaking that it’s no wonder there might be errors in any of its facets. Have you been? I can’t wait to go see it in person.

      • Mme. Mean. says:

        I was there in January 2013 and saw in loco all these problems. Textile and techniques searching is fine, but they do have a problem with dates. I discovered Napoleonic Era goes through the 1840s, for example. Besides that, there are some pretty famous historical characters portrayed there, like Marie Antoinette, but they totally messes up with the information about the person, the period and the costume itself. Too much thing is missing: there is no one single information about the 1850-1870s period, nor about 1940s. No men’s clothes are displayed and, what I consider a huge crime, there’s not even ONE african slave represented there. It’s more a portfolio to the fashion designers who owns it than a museum. And I was pretty shocked as I found out there’s a historian working there, who apparentely doesn’t like visitors to make any suggestions since he has a Dr. degree in History. He may be a Dr., but he has not a very clear idea when it comes to Fashion History.

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