SALEM — At about two dozen volumes, Michelle Tolini Finamore’s collection of cookbooks may not at first appear remarkable. However, with recipes written by fashion icons such as Christian Dior, Salvatore Ferragamo, Karl Lagerfeld, and others who loved the table as much as they did their trade, it is one of the most complete collections of fashion-themed cookbooks in the world.
“I’m always looking for more,” Finamore says of books that currently range from “Fashions in Foods in Beverly Hills” (1931) to a recent compilation of recipes published by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “There’s a dealer in New York who contacts me when she gets something. But it’s very, very rare.”
Finamore, who is curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, used her books to put together a recent lunch for members of the museum’s Fashion Council (see related story).
She comes by her love of the two worlds naturally. Finamore is part of a family of Boston-area chefs renowned for their culinary artistry. “I was interested in food from my family history and started looking at it almost from a decorative arts perspective,” Finamore says.
Her great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncles were all chefs whose creations won many awards in culinary salon competitions held by the Epicurean Club of Boston over much of the 20th century. At the salons, chefs prepared elegant buffets demonstrating classical French techniques and painstakingly created sculptural pieces, from sugar, beeswax, and tallow. The displays took months to prepare and were judged on their visual presentation.
“There are such interesting parallels in the way food is presented in the 1950s and the clothing of that era,” Finamore says. “For example, the formality of the presentations in the culinary salons and the formality of women’s clothing of the 1950s — the full-skirted dresses, the gloves, hats, and proper handbags — were popular at a time when the Parisian haute couture set the fashion trends.”
A scholar of design history, Finamore recently published “Hollywood Before Glamour: Fashion in the American Silent Film,” based on her doctoral research at Bard College. During her graduate studies, Finamore’s dual interests led her to Christian Dior and the start of two decades of building her cookbook collection. “I knew about Christian Dior’s ‘La Cuisine Cousu-Main.’ It was very rare and very hard to find,” Finamore says. The designer was celebrated for his love of haute cuisine and haute couture; the book was published posthumously. With its brushed aluminum cover and artwork by famed fashion illustrator René Gruau, the volume is both the height of 1970s design sophistication and a primer on classic French cuisine. “It was a nice melding of the things I really love,” Finamore says.
The Dior book was not her first acquisition. That was “A Snob in the Kitchen,” by Italian couture designer Simonetta. “I loved the title,” Finamore says. Published in 1967, the book reflects the fascination with all things Italian. “Think of all the Italian movies,” says Finamore.
Flip through her books and you can see the authors’ own aesthetics on the pages. “It is fascinating to consider the connections between a designer such as Christian Dior, his spare elegance, and haute couture craftsmanship,” Finamore says, “and how that is reflected in the kind of food he prepared.”
She also points to “How to Streamline Your Figure” (1937) by “Sylvia of Hollywood,” which may have been a pen name for starlet Sylvia Sidney, according to Finamore. The book includes both recipes and advice for putting on weight, or as the author says, “getting curves on the thin girl.” “It tells you so much about what the ideal was back then,” Finamore says. And there’s a simple black-and-white cookbook from 1990, published by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which reads like other community cookbooks, with illustrations and hand lettering of favorite recipes, both elaborate and homespun. Contributors include Isaac Mizrahi, Bob Mackie, Donna Karan, and others, both famous and lesser-known. “You can tell by the recipes who’s really into food and who isn’t,” Finamore says.
Last year, Finamore curated the exhibition “Cocktail Culture” for the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. She is considering writing a book based on her collection with recipes, cocktails, and artwork organized around different types of clothing or times of day. So even if you are not able to fill your closet with originals by Ferragamo and Chanel, you may at least be able to savor the beauty of a Dior classic: pommes dauphine.