Harold Koda: Collar Scholar

What's been the biggest challenge for you?

It's very sad, but what I've discovered is that pieces that could be really important are generally also the pieces that have become so absorbed into everyone's lives—as most of us can't have haute couture—that they're invisible or have been lost. For example, we wanted to juxtapose a [Jacques] Doucet or [Charles] Worth suit with a Poiret coat, but they're no longer available. At the time they were made, they would have just seemed quotidian. The Saint Laurent suits in our Nan Kempner show will have a similar importance in a hundred years, but when we showed them, some very knowledgeable people said, “It’s not worthy of the Met.”

You clearly have a passion for this.

I'm a groupie.

Where does it come from?

I'll tell you an anecdote. When I was a kid, I had a manual dexterity that people interpreted as artistic, which for me meant I didn't have to play sports. So from the time I was in the fourth grade, every Saturday I would go from the suburbs of Honolulu to the Academy of Arts in the city to take art classes. My parents were working-class, and my mother had this notion of how one dressed for the city. I had to polish my shoes, wear a button-down shirt and chinos. So on the very first day, I remember seeing this green sports car drive up, a two-seater, and two kids pop out in tennis whites and bare feet…

You thought that was inappropriate?

No, I recognized immediately that that was how upper class people dress. Also, I might point out, lower class people. They don't give a damn about the conventions or proprieties. These two kids just came from tennis, their feet got hot and they just threw off their shoes. And their parents didn't care. So I started to wear flip-flops to class—the start of a costume curator.

Such an early-adopter you were.

It was about understanding, even as a fourth-grader, the codes implicit in dress. Unless you're at home and you don't expect anyone, not even the Chinese food delivery guy, you're dressing to communicate something. As soon as you step out that door, you're saying something about yourself. If you go out in a T-shirt and, say, hot pants, you're projecting something.

How many pairs of hot pants do you have?

None that fit anymore.

Do you still make art?

I’m too undisciplined, but I have a fantasy art project. And Guy Trebay’s article about gay artists has incentivized me. I want to photograph male spousal abusers in the clothes of their wives, bursting at the seams. A housedress, an apron, a nightgown blown apart by their brutish male physique. I haven’t decided if they should have to wear make-up. I think not—clothing as sign and narrative. You look alarmed. The short answer is no, and it's a good thing for all of us!

Wow, that would be quite poignant.

Yes, I believe in style as a weapon. There are so many people in fashion, especially gay men when they were in their adolescence, who used style ineffectually. I remember once I was talking with friends and somehow high school came up. They all had horrible times, and then I saw pictures and couldn't help but think I'd beat them up, too. If you're a jock and you want to beat someone up, you're going to beat up someone up who you see as threatening or weak. But if you look at, say, a goth kid who's doing it right, who's not a mess, you'll show respect. You can choose any style language, but you have to speak it perfectly.

Style as a weapon, I like that.

I think there's something seductive about virtuosity. I'm totally not musical, but sometimes I'll go to a concert or to hear a cellist, most of whom are not especially attractive—well, I shouldn't say that—but you just want to sleep with them. Gender doesn’t even matter. I call it jump-in-bed virtuosity. Even if you're an idiot savant, there's something sexy about that. Mmm, maybe that’s even sexier.

Sort of like natural selection? If people are really good at something, even if they're not attractive, the species will survive? There's something so primitive about that.

Yeah, like an intersex shaman who really knows how to work buckskin and beads, so he continues his line. All the women in his tribe, of course, would look chic. And the men's hair would start to look good, too.

It's natural and fashionable selection.


What are your aspirations after The Costume Institute?

Lying around reading pornography, which for me means shelter magazines, and eating buckets of Indian food. I looove Indian food, but I'm allergic to it. I sweat bullets. I wrap a towel around my head or do that thing where you pull your T-shirt over your head like an Egyptian pharaoh and eat Indian food while thumbing through stacks of old HGs [House & Garden].

Is the towel around your head to be like a Maharaja?

No, it's to prevent me from ruining my poor magazines. I also like to bid at auction over the Internet. The obvious sites like Sotheby’s and Christies are okay, but Tajan in France and Bukowski’s in Sweden are my favorites.

What else do you do for pleasure, since we're on the topic?

It sounds so boring, but just being at home, reading with my boyfriend, with the dog curled up around me. And watching reruns of Oz or old Law & Order. And sleeping. I'm so lethargic, although the one physical thing I do—because I can't be a total wuss—is kayak. Even weaklings can kayak.

I take it you're pro gay marriage?

Only if I can register for Queen Anne-style sterling at James Robinson.

Are you political?

Not very. Lynn Yeager thinks I'm a fascist. But I think I'm closer to Lynn Yeager, an unreconstructed socialist, than I am to Ann Coulter. Still, to get a frisson from a Poiret lampshade tunic, I suppose that might seem a little over-evolved to a coal miner.

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