Seven Questions for Karan Feder

The Nevada State Museum's guest curator on costumes and textiles, taming a mountain of showgirl threads and how you can help

 Karen Feder | Photo by Jon Estrada

Karan Feder | Photo by Jon Estrada

You design handbags (; you’ve created licensed products for a variety of clients, from the Liberace estate to Lucasfilm; you serve on the boards of several costuming and creative organizations. What persuaded you to become a guest curator for the Nevada State Museum?

I volunteered about two years ago because they had a costume and textile collection. Once I started studying it and realizing there was no curator for it, I saw there was a really cool opportunity to develop the collection. What would the museum want to include to tell the story of Las Vegas’ costumes and textiles? I became obsessed with making that happen.

We’re standing among thousands of costumes from the Tropicana’s Folies Bergère (1959- 2009). How did this mountain of glitz get here?

In late 2013 or early 2014, I heard that Mamma Mia was coming to the Tropicana. That was a very costume-heavy show, and I thought, “They’re going to want that storage room.” So I aggressively started to bug them: “What are you going to do with these costumes?” Finally, in late 2014, they said, “OK, we’ve decided we’re going to donate what we have to the museum.” They realized that storing the collection was costing them money, and they didn’t really have plans for it. And we said, “We’ll take everything.”

They didn’t have plans for this collection?

When I was talking to them, I said, “The museum would love to mount little pop-up exhibitions at the Tropicana. Now that we have the costumes, we’ll be able to make archival mounts for them and actually create something cool.” And they absolutely had no interest in that. They said, “We’re the new Tropicana.” They’re re-branding themselves. They really don’t want to embrace their past or their legacy. At least not yet.

So when can we see these costumes upstairs in the Museum’s main collection?

First, we’re diligently working on an inventory for the Tropicana so they can write off the donation. Then we’ll pick the things that are in the best condition: triplicates or quadruples of [pieces] we think are important [to form complete, perfect costumes]. We’re still opening boxes, discovering pieces and finding something that reminds us of another piece, and we’ll say, “Geez, I wonder if that goes there?” And we’ve started what we’re calling the Folies Bergère bible, which is a series of photographs from each era that we can reference to make sense of it all.

I’m hoping that we’ll be able to understand the progression of a costume. You can tell that some of these costumes have had two lives. Maybe they started out as just a big velvet ball dress, and then they were shortened and turned into something else. Now that it’s been shortened, there’s no way to look back. But if we have a photograph, we figure out the evolution. UNLV Special Collections has a lot of stage shots, but we’re really depending on the community. Since the last Folies show was just in 2009, a lot of these performers probably still live here. And the wardrobe staff has scrapbooks. Things don’t come to us in archival boxes; they come in big messes like this, and we have to make sense of it.

Have you been able to tell if anything big is missing?

We’re missing most of our headdresses. Those are the pieces that tended to walk out the door and disappear, or be used for Halloween costumes. And for a while, they gave away headdresses to high-rollers. But once people see that the Museum is preserving these costumes, they’ll realize it’s more important that that costume remain in our hands, rather than under their bed or in the back of their closet.

How can locals support this preservation effort?

Crew and cast performers can reach out to help identify pieces. And we would love to be able to recruit a signature sponsor. State funds are so limited. … At some point I would imagine we’re going to screech to a halt because we no longer have the money to buy the archival materials for the housing and mounting of the costumes. Single gown-size boxes typically run $45-$60 apiece. … These aren’t typical gowns. Everything needs to be custom built, which is not only expensive but also time-consuming.

Do you see the Nevada State Museum becoming another stop on the Vegas history tour? You’ve seen the neon signs, the mob artifacts and the A-bomb ephemera; now, see the rhinestones and feathers?

Exactly. We’ll have to redesign our marketing materials to reflect the fact that we now have this collection. In our current advertising, we show our woolly mammoth as the museum’s focal point. Maybe, soon, that will change, and there’ll be a showgirl right next to the mammoth!

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