Connected \\ September 24, 2020

Angels fly in to help digitize new fashion collection

Last summer, PEM acquired a 90-piece collection of contemporary fashion generously donated to us by the collector, Rana Sadik. Sadik began collecting avant-garde fashion in her early 20’s and over the last 20 years amassed an exceptional and diverse assemblage of clothing and accessories.

Taking in any donation, regardless of scope or size requires a tremendous amount of effort by a number of PEM staff. Each work must be accounted for and transported to the museum. Upon arrival the artworks are catalogued, photographed, assessed and finally prepared for storage. This is time-consuming and detail-oriented work.

Detail of allover sequined dress, by Peter Pilotto (2019.43.48).

Detail of allover sequined dress, by Peter Pilotto (2019.43.48).


Sadik's collection represents the work of designers and houses like Alexander McQueen, Comme des Garçons and Huishan Zhang, and builds upon a blossoming collection of objects acquired by PEM over the last 10 years. A number of other garments in the Sadik collection includes designers, such as Ashish Gupta, Mary Katrantzou and Proenza Schouler. This gift also represents what we believe to be one of the first major donations of contemporary fashion to a U.S. institution by a person living in the Middle East.

Detail of allover sequined dress, by Peter Pilotto (2019.43.48)

Detail of allover sequined dress, by Peter Pilotto (2019.43.48).


Sadik is the founder and director of MinRASY Projects, a platform to conceive and produce projects in public spaces, based in Kuwait. She was born in the U.S. to Palestinian parents and relocated to Kuwait as a baby. A graduate of Boston University and Tisch New York, Sadik divides her time between Kuwait, London and the U.S. In April 2018 Vogue Arabia wrote of Sadik:

Rana Sadik’s role in the art world transcends labels of any kind. Is she a collector, patron, or curator? Does it even matter? Ever the nonconformist thinker, she states, ‘These are oversimplified terms, because the cultural landscape requires you to be all those at once if you are looking to be effective.’ Sadik’s studio, minRASY Projects, regularly runs interventions around the region, memorably among them Study for a Domiciled Gallery (2015), in which the art and furnishings of her own living room were transported to Kuwait’s Museum of Modern Art, then displayed in sterile glass cases to provoke discussion about unspoken protocols of collecting, particularly in countries where immigration is non-fixed.

Mannequins in various states of undress. Each ensemble requires some kind of mounting support to help create the best look and fit for each garment. Cotton batting, stockinette and twill tape are frequently used.

PEM Associate Registrar Megan MacNeil holds the assigned accession numbers in front of a dressed ensemble by Gianni Versace for photography.

PEM Associate Registrar Megan MacNeil holds the assigned accession numbers in front of a dressed ensemble by Gianni Versace for photography.


PEM is fortunate to have Megan MacNeil at the helm of our acquisitions process, overseeing the transition and acquisition of every work in PEM’s collection. But for ten very active collecting departments, there is only one Megan and she is truly a rock star!

With the launch of a new fashion initiative in 2018, PEM began to focus on acquiring contemporary fashion to help build out our collection. While we are fortunate to have a state-of-the-art facility and access to physical resources such as the photography set-up, our team is hindered by limited human resources and staff dedicated solely to fashion and textiles.

Station 4 is where garments were undressed and detailed photographs of their labels were taken using a photo-stand system. Featured here is a dress by Rosie Assoulin (2019.43.54).

Station 4 is where garments were undressed and detailed photographs of their labels were taken using a photo-stand system. Featured here is a dress by Rosie Assoulin (2019.43.54).


Enter the Costume Society of America (CSA). This past year, CSA established the “Digital Angels,” built on a tradition where trained professionals offer volunteer support to smaller or under-resourced institutions to tackle projects like re-housings or inventories. The group is led by co-chairs Dr. Monica Sklar, with the University of Georgia, and Professor Leon Wiebers with Loyola Marymount University.

Making sure the fabric lays correctly, strapless dress by Giambattista Valli (2019.43.81).

Making sure the fabric lays correctly, strapless dress by Giambattista Valli (2019.43.81).


I’ve been a member of this organization since I was a graduate student and I credit this involvement with helping put me on my curatorial path. CSA’s mission is to foster an understanding of appearance and dress practices of people across the globe through research, education, preservation and design. Members study the past, examine the present and anticipate the future of clothing and fashion. While institutions like The Costume Institute at the MET are fortunate to fully digitize their collections and share them online, most U.S. fashion collections are not so lucky. When Sadik donated her collection to PEM, she (like many of our donors) expressed a desire for it to be made as accessible by as many people as possible.

PEM Registrar for Acquisitions Megan MacNeil and Curator Petra Slinkard ready a Chanel camisole (2019.43.87) for photography. The black leggings were used as a prop to ground separates.

PEM Associate Registrar Megan MacNeil and Curator Petra Slinkard ready a Chanel camisole (2019.43.87) for photography. The black leggings were used as a prop to ground separates. Each mannequin was transported on a dolly finished with a rod to easily move one dressed mannequin from one station to another with limited handling.


In support of a pilot study, the CSA Endowment provided seed-money for a special project to develop an Angels-like volunteer outreach program assisting and training collections staff to digitize their holdings of dress. This long-term project will help bring hidden collections online and accessible for all. This work also formed the foundation for a grant application with the National Endowment for the Humanities. CSA will learn in early 2021 if they received the grant to continue this work.

Tools of the trade. Mannequin arms and hands as well as a tape measure.

Tools of the trade. Mannequin arms and hands as well as a tape measure.

Documentation station, featuring our working checklist and object number assignment used in photography.

Documentation station, featuring our working checklist and object number assignment used in photography.


With the help of CSA volunteers and the Digital Angels, PEM was able to process, photograph and ready for storage this 90+ piece international contemporary fashion acquisition in just four days. We set up five stations. The first was dedicated to assessment and cataloging. Working in teams, we measured and noted each work of art while entering data into a spreadsheet. Next the pieces were mounted on a mannequin and prepared for photography. Then, the works moved into the photography studio and were placed on a lazy-susan platform which enabled the collections and photography teams to rotate the objects to the preferred angle without directly handling the works. Finally, garments (on mannequins) were wheeled to the fourth station, where they were undressed, had their labels photographed, and were placed on an archival padded hanger or packed with acid-free tissue in a box (some garments are too heavy to hang). A fifth station was set up to assemble the padded hangers (There are never enough!)

The PEM team worked with seven CSA volunteers (which included two students from the Rhode Island School of Design) to complete the task. We learned a lot, made improvements to our system which we were then able to pass onto the CSA team as well as fully catalogue and ready for storage this significant gift. The images will soon be pushed to PEM’s webportal and made accessible for all!

I am grateful to Rana Sadik for entrusting PEM with her important collection of contemporary fashion and to our team of colleagues whose work behind the scenes enables PEM to care for our collections and in turn produce the kinds of projects we do. I also extend that gratitude to the Costume Society of America volunteers and the Digital Angels co-chairs for all their help!

Documentation station, featuring our working checklist and object number assignment used in photography.

As a result of this project, we were also able to strengthen a strategy and protocol for processing large fashion collections. Some of which you will see in our upcoming exhibition opening November 21, Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion.

Tina Leser, dress (detail), 1950s. Peabody Essex Museum, museum purchase made possible by the Henry W. Belknap Acquisition Fund, 2019.21.1. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.


While this exhibition looks back 250 years to recognize the often overlooked contributions made by women in the fashion industry, the Digital Angels and members of the CSA focused on the part of the organization's mission that looks to the future of clothing and fashion in museums. After all the fun we had working together in the storage areas of PEM, the dark days of March closed in and the pandemic became real. So, we’ll have to stay on our toes. And continue to collaborate creatively.

Digital Angels and PEM team on the final day (March 12).

Digital Angels and PEM team on the final day (March 12).

All photos by Bob Packert/PEM.

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