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Phoenix Museum Makes Fashion an Art Form

The Phoenix Art Museum offers a dedicated fashion design gallery.

Most people think of New York, Paris and Milan when they imagine the world’s fashion capitals. But fashionistas can find a dedicated fashion design gallery in the heart of Phoenix. The Phoenix Art Museum, the largest art museum in the Southwest—drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly—is home to the Arizona Costume Institute and retains a collection of more than 7,000 fashion objects dating from the 18th century to the present as part of its Fashion Design Department.

Something Really Special

The Arizona Costume Institute was originally founded in 1966 as a way to support the new Fashion Design Department at a time when fashion was not always seen as an art form. The museum continued to grow the collection, opening the Kelly Ellman Gallery in 2006. 

In addition to the permanent collection, the Kelly Ellman Fashion Design Gallery enables the museum to showcase two exhibitions a year. Dennita Sewell has been curator of fashion design since January 2000, when she came to Phoenix from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute

Phoenix Art Museum
A collection of outfits by Giorgio Di Sant'angelo, Emilio Pucci and vintage Vanity Fair lingerie. (©Isaac Arjonilla)

“We have something really special here,” said Sewell, who added that only a handful of art museums across the country have dedicated fashion design galleries. and the collection in Phoenix is one of only about 15 across the country. “It is increasingly special to study [fashion] objects firsthand.” 

That ability to see history up-close and personal, to experience everyday objects—clothing and accessories—as part of history is what makes the fashion design collection so important to Sewell.

“It’s the vibrancy and creativity of the objects that open people’s eyes to new ideas,” she said. 

And, having that as part of the fabric of everyday Phoenix life, helps make the city more diverse and more cosmopolitan. 

“It adds to our worldliness here in Phoenix,” she said. 

In addition to overseeing the permanent collection, Sewell has brought such major exhibits to the museum as “Hollywood Red Carpet,” which featured gowns from actresses such as Jessica Chastain, Glenn Close, Amy Adams and Renée Zellweger; “Hollywood Costume,” with costumes from “Star Wars,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Titanic,” “Harry Potter” and more; and “The White Shirt According to Me. Gianfranco Ferré,” an exhibition featuring 27 of Ferré’s most significant white shirts—and the only such exhibit to be shown in North America.

Phoenix Art Museum
Handbags and accessories by Franco Moschino. (©Isaac Arjonilla)

The Fashion Design Gallery’s Impressive Roster

The thousands of objects in the fashion design gallery, varying from men’s and women’s clothing to shoes and other accessories, are part art form and part cultural statement. Because the objects range from the 18th century to the present, they are a way to examine our history as a people, as well as to examine how social and economic attributes change fashion. 

The clothing in the gallery is primarily from American and European designers. Some in the permanent collection include Ralph Rucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Claire McCardell, Geoffrey Beene, Halston, Pauline Trigère, Balenciaga and Coco Chanel. 

From the very beginning, the museum has relied on the kindness of its benefactors. When the Phoenix Art Museum established the Fashion Design Department in 1966 and created the Arizona Costume Institute, it relied on the fundraising efforts of volunteers to establish the original collection. The first curator was hired in 1970, and donations over the years have included gifts from the likes of Nancy Reagan. In 2016, the museum received a $2 million endowment from longtime patron Jacquie Dorrance to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Arizona Costume Institute. 

Shaping the Next Faces in Fashion

A recognized face in the art world both nationally and internationally, Sewell is influencing the genre not only via her work at Phoenix Art Museum, but with her newest endeavor, which brings together Phoenix Art Museum and Arizona State University (ASU). Beginning with the fall 2017 semester, ASU will offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in fashion, a program headed by Sewell. 


Phoenix Art Museum gallery
Phoenix Art Museum offers a number of galleries in addition to the fashion design gallery. (Courtesy Bill Timmerman/Phoenix Art Museum)

The match between museum and university seems a natural one for Sewell. 

“There is so much interest in fashion now,” she said. 

Reality television has played in role in showcasing how the fashion industry works, helping would-be designers believe in the possibility of turning fashion designs into a reality. 

But Sewell pointed out that there is so much more to the fashion industry and she hopes that the partnership with ASU can help showcase that. 

“There are so many more jobs in the fashion industry—lights, press, merchandising, the arts,” she said." “As a research institute, ASU can explore new avenues. For example, students can take classes in sustainability. It provides a tremendous starting point for exploring the fashion industry.”

Another huge bonus for students in Phoenix is having the museum’s fashion archive at hand. The thousands of fashion pieces in the permanent collection give students an edge from the very beginning. Sewell says she is already beginning special topics and workshops that will serve as a way for students to learn, and for the public to observe the skills and talents as the fashion undergrads share their visions and expertise with the visiting public.

There is also a major research component at Phoenix Art Museum. The Astaire Library of Costumes, housed in the Museum’s Art Research Library, houses rare books and prints on costumes and textiles.