The Chicago History Museum’s curator of costumes discusses her passion for the history of fashion.
When you meet a woman named Petra who’s from the Netherlands and has nearly 10 years experience in art history and fashion, you’re not going to immediately connect her to Middle America. At least, that didn’t cross my mind when I first met Chicago History Museum Curator of Costumes Petra Slinkard. But as I learned more about her Midwestern roots, I discovered Chicago’s actually not far from where it all began.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Born to a Dutch mother and American father, Ms. Slinkard spent the first three years of her life in the Netherlands. “My dad lived in Europe for 15 years while working in the music industry,” she explains. “He courted my mother, long distance, while he lived in Germany. They eventually married, lived in the Netherlands, had me and moved back to his hometown of Elkhart, Indiana. Elkhart was sort of the ‘band capital’ of the world, manufacturing instruments. And that was his business.”
FROM INDY TO ARTSY
In college, Ms. Slinkard didn’t stray far from her American home. Nearly four hours south, in Bloomington, Indiana, she attended Indiana University (IU) earning degrees in art history and apparel merchandising. “I enjoyed art but was really drawn to the stories behind the works,” she recalls. “I then became more involved in fashion, working for IU’s historic costume collection – The Sage Collection – and my focus shifted toward studying historical objects and developing stories about them.”
Also attending graduate school at IU for a master’s in fashion/textile history, Ms. Slinkard became an adjunct professor at the school. However, worried that she’d become “too comfortable” living in Bloomington, she ventured to New York City for a change of scenery. “I did nothing involving any of my fields,” she laughs. “I basically worked to survive. I had four jobs, but they were all over the city – a restaurant at 81st and 3rd, an organic grocery store in the East Village, a bar at South Street Seaport and the Mercury Lounge on Houston – so I got to experience different sections of New York.” But fashion and art history were still calling her name…
“I wasn’t carving out a lot of time to job search,” explains Ms. Slinkard. “I finally went for it and applied for museum and teaching jobs all over. Right when I was headed to my second interview at a job in Ohio, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) called and offered me a contract position for a traveling exhibition on contemporary fashion.” She took the job and moved back to Indiana with the intention of subletting her New York apartment and later returning to see what the New York fashion/art scene had to offer. “But two days before my contract ended, the IMA offered me a full-time position. Eight months turned into six years.”
SWEET HOME CHICAGO
Up for new challenges, Ms. Slinkard took a position as curator of costumes at the Chicago History Museum last September. “The job challenges me to stop looking at objects for aesthetic purposes and to actually explain the stories they bring with them,” she says. “That’s where their inherent value lies, and that’s what I’ve always been interested in doing.”
And although she’s a big part of putting together the Chicago History Museum’s exhibitions, Ms. Slinkard emphasizes that it takes a whole team to curate the exhibits visitors come to know and love. “Many people come together to develop the appropriate feeling or mood so we can tell a story,” she says, noting that when she attempts to explain what a curator does to those who aren’t in the field, “I liken it to being a detective. I’m given clues and people count on me to put the pieces together and solve a mystery. And when I do, I’ll get dressed up and give a presentation at the museum. My job is multifaceted. Other days, I’m putting on boots and jeans, going in to storage and discovering what we have in the collection.”
FINDING HER WAY
Navigating the style scene in Chicago has been tough for Ms. Slinkard, but it’s getting better with the changing weather. She moved here just before the brutal winter and feels like she hasn’t had a true glimpse of ‘Chicago style.’ “The weather sometimes works against me, because everyone is so covered up all the time. But every city has a ‘style’ – an embodiment of the individuals who live there. And Chicago, from what I can tell so far, is interesting.”
Ms. Slinkard says she respects the way Chicagoans embrace winter. “I’ve seen gorgeous hats and full-length coats. I take the bus to work and see some of the most eclectic pieces. They’re not always high-end, but they’re unique. Chicago is a shopping destination. Its retail history is vast, and it’s a wonderful resource for the people of Chicago to have at their disposal.”
As for her personal style, Ms. Slinkard defines it as “edgy and feminine with a dash of Bohemian. I gravitate toward minimalist silhouettes in solid colors with a focus on subtle construction details. (Except at the height of summer; then I’m all about colorful printed dresses!) I enjoy dressing for the occasion and delight in the unexpected. So incorporating a pop of color into a neutral ensemble is where I tend to shine. But really — it’s about the shoes. I definitely have a thing for shoes.” And once the weather warms up, there’s no holding her style creativity back.