Back in the middle of the last century, Sandy Schreier would come once a year to New York from Detroit, her hometown, and wander around the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her husband, Sherwin.
“Someday,” Ms. Schreier, now in her 80s, would tell him, “my pieces of couture will be here with all these gorgeous paintings and sculptures.”
The “pieces of couture” she was talking about turned out to be one of the most important private fashion collections in the United States that most people have never heard of, and this November Ms. Schreier will get her wish when “In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection” opens at the Met’s Costume Institute.
Unlike other individuals who have had shows dedicated to their wardrobes, such as Jacqueline de Ribes and Nan Kempner, however, Ms. Schreier was not shopping for herself and never wore the clothes she adored. She began collecting as a child and over her lifetime amassed approximately 15,000 pieces of Schiaparelli, Chanel, Lanvin, Fortuny, Adrian and the like — 165 of which are a promised gift to the Costume Institute, part of the Met’s 150th anniversary collections drive. (It is undecided when they will officially become part of the museum’s collection, leaving open the possibility Ms. Schreier could change her mind.) About 80 of those pieces will make up the show.
“She was a pioneer in seeing fashion as an art form that could be pursued and collected; when she started almost no individuals and very few museums were thinking about fashion in that way,” said Jessica Regan, associate curator of the Costume Institute. Now, though, they are all after her.
Ms. Schreier has lent pieces to various shows in the past, and designers including Calvin Klein and Edith Head made pilgrimages to her secret storage facility in Detroit to see her collection. But this exhibition will be the first time the public gets a comprehensive view of it — and, for many, the first time they hear her name.
So who is this unmasked woman? She got on the phone from Detroit to answer some questions. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
How did you start collecting?
My father was a protégé of David Nemerov, the president of the Manhattan department store Russeks and the father of Diane Arbus; he started working in the mailroom while he was going to college and worked his way up. So when Russeks decided to open its only branch in Detroit, because that’s where all the automotive moguls were, with wives who all wore couture but maybe didn’t want to travel to Paris, they asked him if he wanted to run the fur department and be an assistant store manager. He did, and that’s where I was born.
But when I was little there were no nurseries and my mother was busy with my little sister, so my dad would take me to work with him. I’d just sit on the shop floor, and I fell in love with fashion: The staff would dress me up, and I would look at all the pictures in the magazines. At that time, it was no longer fashionable to pass clothes down, and my dad’s clientele saw how much I loved the clothes and started sending me their couture after they had worn it once, or sometimes not at all. Their drivers would bring the boxes over.
Wait — how old were you?
Three or four. I never really thought of what I was doing as collecting, though. I was just acquiring these wonderful things.
What would you do with them?
We had an unfinished room in our house that I think was intended to be a playroom, and I put all the boxes there: from Lanvin, from Chanel. My parents used to say we would die of old clothes disease. One Halloween my mother insisted I wear one of the dresses as my costume and I had a huge temper tantrum and refused. Even then, I didn’t want anyone wearing them.
I always said, ‘If I owned a Picasso, it would not be on my back.’
Did you buy your pieces?
When I started, there was no such thing as a vintage clothing store or vintage dealers. Purely by accident I started going on radio and talk shows and news programs and talking about fashion — they used to call it “social living,” because fashion was frivolous — and then later movie fashion, and then people around the country who were listening or watching heard about me and started sending me pieces. Most of my collection was given to me.
What are some of your favorites?
One dress I think is extremely exciting belonged to Mrs. Dodge [Matilda Dodge Wilson, the wife of a founder of the Dodge car company]; I call it my Egyptian dress. It’s by a couture house called Madeleine & Madeleine, and it is all covered in hieroglyphic embroidery.
There’s the metal mesh minidress Twiggy wore in a famous Richard Avedon picture that ran in Vogue in 1967; when she decided to move back from Los Angeles to Britain she had seen articles about me, so she called and asked me if I would like the dress. Countess Tolstoy, who was the sister-in-law of the writer, came here and brought her couture. And there’s a gold lamé bathing swimsuit by Schiaparelli. I have an incredible swimwear collection; that, to me, is the story of women’s liberation.
In the 1960s I was also a model for Vidal Sassoon — he came to Detroit for a hair show and we met, and then he invited me to come to London, and I met Zandra Rhodes and Mary Quant and became their friend, and when I left to come home, Mary gifted me with some amazing pieces she made.
How did you decide what is going to the Met?
I met Harold Koda [the former curator in charge] a long time ago, and then I met Andrew [Bolton, now the curator in charge]. He came here with his dream team and selected their pieces. They have been so supportive of me — they made me realize what I am doing is important.
Why did you decide to give part of your collection away?
I have lived most of my life in a fairy tale world, and when my husband got sick and passed away a few years ago, I came down to earth with a thud. I have four children and seven grandchildren, and they are almost all lawyers or married to lawyers — my husband was a lawyer — and only one, my eldest granddaughter, does anything close to fashion. She works for LVMH, in marketing. Before I decided to make the gift to the Met, I asked them all if they had any interest in this, and they looked at me like I was crazy, so I thought, ‘What will happen to these beautiful things?’
There was no doubt in mind the Met has the best staff to take care of all my babies when they are away at permanent summer camp, and the broadest, best audience for them. I very much did not want them to end up at auction sold to some socialite who would buy them, and alter them to wear once to a party, and then get rid of them.
How do you feel?
This is very emotional for me. These pieces have been a part of my life almost my entire life. They are a part of my family. I’m sad and happy simultaneously. I’m sad my husband is not here to see this happen. But I’ve had no qualms about my decision. I wrote two books about fashion and the movies, and each one started with the same line: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a movie star.’ Now, thanks to the Met, I think I’m well on my way.
What are you going to wear to the opening?
I haven’t made a decision! It’s going to be very difficult. Maybe I’ll pretend it’s a wedding and change three times.
Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman
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