theo tyson is neither art nor fashion historian. theo tyson is of fashion, of Black, queer joy, of style and storytelling.
Five years ago, they couldn’t tell you what a fashion curator was. Next month, they start a new role as the Museum of Fine Arts-announced Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts, concentrating on the MFA’s collection of 20th- and 21st-century fashion.
This is the kind of museum culture we want. When we have diversity of thought, experience, and identity among our curators, the stories of us contain multitudes and are told with more honesty.
tyson earned a master’s degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design and has worked in fashion for 20 years: on the retail floor of Victoria’s Secret, as a fashion show producer and stylist at Bloomingdale’s, as project manager at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and stylist and researcher at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Georgia.
At the MFA, they plan to use fashion to be in conversation with the community, to celebrate Boston’s own fashion past, present, and future.
“Fashion is one of the most approachable forms of art,” says tyson, previously a Polly Thayer Starr Fellow in American Art at the Boston Athenaeum. “All fashion is not art, but self-fashioning is an art. You never meet anyone naked. There’s a sense of understanding in fashion everyone can participate in a way that is personal but also communal. I want openness, and I want to get people excited about fashion.”
Celebrating Boston’s and New England’s fashion stories is another priority for tyson, who recently moved to Haverhill from Atlanta. Shoes have been on tyson’s mind as they start to think about the massive fashion collection to explore at the MFA. Our region has a deep shoe history and present.
“Being able to make those connections to history, to explore textile mills and factories that are still in Lowell and Lawrence — that is fashion, and it is part of American history,” tyson says. “I want to move away from a super-encyclopedic museum and into a space that does not make distinctions of what is high and low culture but focuses on art and how we engage with it.”
Garments can be gorgeous, disarming, and take your breath away. But what is the story of the making of the garment? What does the outfit make you feel when you wear it? When you see it? What is happening on the day, in the year, you are wearing your clothes? When the stories are told, it matters.
“I am really excited about exhibition,” tyson says. “The collaborations. I am talking to curators and doing a lot of listening. We have half a million objects in our collection. That’s a lot of material to engage with, but there are a lot of people to engage with, too. Fashion makes people feel things. Fashion is a part of our memory, our current memory, our ancestral memory, and our future memories. I want people to gather and gleam all of those feelings.”
As a child, growing up in a military family, tyson learned early the power of fashion. The dignity in the shine of her dad’s boots, the proud, sharp creases of his pants, the way her mom set the vibe of the house by ensuring everyone came to the dinner table dressed and with their hair done.
Clothes, at their most basic and essential, cover us. But fashion is an introduction, an extension of identity, and a story. It is a freedom, too.
“Fashion creates the ability to take garments and construct various identities and resist other constructed identities,” tyson says. “There were uniforms enslaved people were forced to wear, Negro cloth. So having any sartorial sense is a sense of equity and humanity.”
tyson has put in a lot of time studying 19th-century fashion and the way identity and protest could be communicated with a rising hemline, a suit, and here, in the 21st century, with printed matter like T-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” and “The Future Is Female.” Even to put on a white button-down shirt is to make a statement, tyson points out. A woman can wear it and hold the power and respect some reserve for men.
tyson wakes up every morning and puts on either all black or black and white, counting Lenny Kravitz and David Bowie as muses. The clean lines, the power, the ways in which the colors are hard and soft all at once.
“Fashion is a language that allows you to communicate and establish relationships and not say a word,” tyson says. “Wearing all black is affirming, and I associate a little bit of it to Alexander McQueen wanting people to be afraid of the women he dressed, to respect them. My personality is the most colorful thing, and there’s no need to compete with it.”
Sitting in the MFA a month before their job starts, tyson seems to take it all in as they declare there is no painting in the MFA where fashion doesn’t have room to be.
“Even if it’s a nude, fashion is a part of the conversation,” tyson says. “Fashion is a part of our lives, the way we live in it, how we show up, how we talk about it and don’t talk about it. If fashion wasn’t so powerful, men would have never stopped wearing heels.”
theo tyson has stories to tell, and they’re going to be haute.