The Coolest Job in New York: Alumna Dresses Major Fashion Exhibitions

Watch Smith discuss her work in this video, produced by MoMA.

In the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern?, a black 1968 Givenchy dress seems to float in the air. The effect is so subtle it nearly escapes notice, and that vanishing act is the work of the show’s master dresser, Tae Smith, Museum Studies: Costume and Textiles. MoMA’s exhibition, a brainy mix of the quotidian (the Wonderbra) and the quixotic (a dress from Rei Kawakubo’s “Lumps and Bumps” collection), required unusual attention to modes of display. Working with the curators, Smith developed strategies to showcase the objects.

The Museum at FIT loaned the Givenchy, so Smith prepared the invisible mannequin under the eye of MFIT Senior Conservator Ann Coppinger ’06. Smith put the dress on a buckram torso she made and took extensive notes. She then removed the garment and began a curious mix of carving and padding the mount to give it the correct body proportions. “The dress is an excellent example of the silhouette of that period,” Smith says. “Yes, it’s a little black dress, but it has a sparkle—a subtle sparkle, not a Bob Mackie–type sparkle.”

Smith adjusts a garment for the Jewish Museum’s exhibition Veiled Meanings, opening November 3. The museum is free on Saturdays and admission is pay-as-you-wish on Thursdays from 5 to 8 pm. Photo by Smiljana Peros.

Other items in Items required more conceptual considerations. An unremarkable red Champion sweatshirt, for example, hangs from the wall, its hood gaping. The ghostly exhibit is intended to evoke the Trayvon Martin case, in which the hoodie played a major role. It was a challenge to endow this ordinary garment with presence: “The worst thing you can do to a fashion exhibition is to make it look like retail. You can buy a hoodie anywhere; we didn’t want the show to look like shopping,” Smith says.

Smith usually dresses two or three shows a year; but fashion exhibitions—and her work—have exploded recently. She’s worked for the Louis Vuitton Foundation, the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of the Moving Image. For the Jewish Museum, she recently completed work on Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, a show of exquisite and exotic garments collected by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, opening November 3. Jewish communities from more than 20 countries are represented, including Afghanistan, India, and Morocco, for an exhibition Smith says will appeal to material culture devotees and textile enthusiasts, as well as fashion audiences.

Her reputation is growing. For director Baz Luhrman’s 2013 film The Great Gatsby, Smith served as the costume and production design researcher, digging through archives to find period-appropriate tricorn hats and other fascinating arcana: “Baz wanted to know how telephones worked in the 1920s. Once he asked, ‘Would it be normal to have a phone on a plinth in the middle of a room?’” (It wouldn’t, Smith said.)

Smith got her start in this unusual field while still an FIT graduate student. She helped dress the 2003–04 Marimekko show at the Bard Graduate Center, and realized she loved the work. Bard’s gallery director recognized Smith’s talent and recommended her for other jobs, as did fellow graduate Sarah Scaturro ’10, head conservator for The Met’s Costume Institute.

Smith mounted several little black dresses for MoMA’s show.

The MoMA curators included wall text that acknowledges Smith and her expertise. (She headed a four-person team that included current MA student Virginia Theerman ’19.) Smith is grateful for the recognition: “I like to say that if you don’t notice my work, then I’ve done my job. So anytime a behind-the-scenes person is acknowledged, it’s a huge deal,” she says.

Smith says, “The Bruce Lee Archives made the tracksuit specifically for this exhibition, so I felt we really needed to do the tracksuit justice and get as close to Bruce Lee’s silhouette as we could. Lee was approximately 5’8″ and muscular, but not in a bodybuilder way. The male mannequin we had was taller and more muscular, so we had to cut 7 inches from the legs and reattach them with Ethafoam, and slim the torso by cutting away sections of the front and back. We basically remade the mannequin.”