Dressing for Success
The Mary Emery mansion stood statuesque for years, its front door facing Victory Parkway and its backside offering an unparalleled view of the sweeping Ohio River far below. It’s where Cynthia Amneus and the last Edgecliff College fine arts majors spent their final college days.
“We lived in that house practically,” says Amneus, who graduated in 1982. “We were in there for classes until 9:00 p.m. every night—until they kicked us out. It was just a beautiful place to be with the river, and the house was gorgeous and intimate.” Now Amneus is in another big, beautiful house, and she’s still studying fine art. As associate curator of costumes and textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Amneus is surrounded daily with everything she loves—fabulous architecture and historic fabrics and clothing dating as far back as the 15th century. She arrived at the museum 15 years ago, after teaching fiber arts at Xavier, and moved into her current position in 1998.
Though she found it difficult to leave teaching, she still does a lot of it—to school groups, docents and in presentations to arts groups. She also does a lot of research to fill gaps in the collections and secure touring exhibits.
“What’s exciting about my position is it combines everything I love—teaching, doing docent training, giving lectures and gallery tours, and also I’m working with objects I actually love, costume and fashion and fabrics. And my job is varied—in the gallery, in collections and in the library doing research.”
While earning her master’s degree in fine art at the University of Illinois, she learned the technical side of the weaving process—how to set up the loom and figure out how many threads were needed per inch. Her master’s thesis was a set of five pieces that combined wooden structures with fabrics that, when mounted to the wall, reflected the seasonal patterns and landscape of the flat Illinois farmland. In the process, she learned to appreciate the intricacies of textiles and fabrics.
The costume and textiles collection she manages includes a variety of pieces such as a 1620 prayer cloth, numerous evening and wedding gowns of the late 1800s through early 1900s, and a beaded textile from 1670. But it also includes a green and tan polyester minaret dress by Japanese designer Issey Miyake from 1995. Most of the pieces, many made of linen and silk, are so sensitive to light they can only be displayed three to four months of the year.
Amneus is proud of the collection, in part because it was the seed for the museum’s construction in 1886—125 years ago. The group of Cincinnati women who initiated the idea for the museum and brought together the men with the money to build it also traveled to London in 1883 to buy 16th and 17th century textiles, lace and needlework as one of its first acquisitions. “We have pieces in the collection purchased before the museum was built,” she says.