For our first Member Monday feature of the year, meet Tory Laitila, Curator of Textiles and Historic Arts at the Honolulu Museum of Art. A dedicated costume historian and vexillologist, Tory’s bridges the gap between the past and the present, weaving stories that transcend time and make for meaningful connections.
Textile Society of America (TSA): Happy New Year Tory! Would you share a bit about your work process and inspiration.
Tory Laitila (TL): As the curator of textiles and historic arts of Hawaiʻi at the Honolulu Museum of Art, my purview is vast, and includes a global textile collection of 6,000 works. The museum has textiles installed in several of the permanent galleries, and for their rotations, I work with other curators and attempt to connect the textiles to the other works on view. I favor working with historic garments as they are the most intimate of artifacts and can tell us about a specific person in time and place, so I think of presenting exhibitions as a way of storytelling. My goal is to stitch together all the information and stories associated with the works, and to make them relevant to contemporary audiences.
TSA: What is your first or favorite textile memory?
TL: One of my favorite textile memories comes from 2002 when I was the assistant curator at the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives. For years, the museum was known as the unofficial quilt museum of Hawaiʻi and would have an annual display. For the 24th annual quilt show, curator Stuart Ching and I came up with the idea of an exhibition of organizational quilts. We sourced Hawaiian quilts from the community, from the police department, fire department, hospitals, airlines, schools, and other organizations. The combined quilts were a patchwork of the community. The exhibition took much more planning due to the number of loans, but the Kapa Awaiāulu: The Fabric of Our Community exhibition was a very enjoyable and memorable project.
TSA: Do you have any textile-related books or resources that you like to recommend?
TL: For historic garments I love looking through the Fashion in Detail publications from the Victoria and Albert Museum, Costume Close-Up from Colonial Williamsburg, and Costume in Detail by Nancy Bradfield. Having worked at a historic house site and as a maker of historic garments, I’ve greatly appreciated having a copy of The Workwoman’s Guide by A. Lady and I’ve also found From the Neck Up by Denise Dreher useful when creating hats. At my desk is a copy of Arts & Crafts of Hawaii by Te Rangi Hiroa and a copy of Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1800-1860 by Eileen Jahnke Trestain.
TSA: If given the power to master any skill instantaneously, what would it be?
TL: Unrelated to textiles, but if I were suddenly given the ability to play the violin, it would be greatly appreciated. I have a great regard for the violin and it happens to be the musical instrument of choice of one of my heroes, Sherlock Holmes. It can be like being able to play two instruments, as sometimes one plays the violin, while other times, one plays the fiddle.
TSA: What projects are you currently working on / looking forward to?
TL: I am currently working on an exhibition titled Fashioning Aloha, that will run from April to August 2024 at the Honolulu Museum of Art. The exhibition features a variety of aloha-wear garments, holokū (gowns), muʻumuʻu (short dresses), holomuʻu (dresses), and aloha shirts, and highlights the diversity of fabric motifs, from newspapers to Hawaiian quilts as aloha-wear fabric is much more that just flowers. Alongside the garments will be other works from the museum’s collection with similar motifs. I’m hoping that visitors will see a garment that might be similar to something in their closets, or maybe something they’d want for their closets, and will appreciate and think more about the message of aloha wear.
Tory Laitila is a costume historian, vexillologist, and the Curator of Textiles and Historic Arts of Hawaiʻi at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Fascinated by history, he explores opportunities to bring the past to life, finding relevant ways to connect yesteryear and the present. Of CHamoru heritage and raised in Hawaiʻi, he holds a Bachelor’s in Art History (with a focus on historic costume) from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and is an active member of the Honolulu arts and culture community.