Astoria Characters: The Couture Curator

Oh, it feels s-o-o good to get dressed up again!

For Colleen Hill, getting dressed up means donning a chic 1960s black velvet dress whose bat-wing-like bell sleeves are trimmed with outrageous curlicues of rigid white ruffles.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen’s a curator at FIT.

It, of course, complements her black patterned tights, her kicky dark-purple secondhand suede ankle boots and her leopard-print cloth mask.

She bought the dress on Etsy and remarks that it’s silk velvet, which nobody makes any more.

Colleen’s the curator of costumes and accessories at the Fashion Institute of Technology so what’s in her closet is of intense and immense interest.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen’s dress is vintage 1960s.

There are only three wee closets in her apartment – one for her, one for her husband, Christopher Howard, and one for coats and storage.

Hers, which has a full-length mirror on the outside, is in the living room. It’s crowded but carefully choreographed; her collection of shoes is arranged on shelves on the floor.

Right now, it holds her winter collection – the summer clothes are in boxes under her bed.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
At 14, Eisner still acts like a kitten.

“Eighty-five percent of my clothing is secondhand,” she says as she slips off her boots, replacing them with black slippers adorned with large deep-blue tassels.

They are new, not pre-owned, she points out. She bought two pair on Etsy – they are, she says, the epitome of comfort.

Colleen, who has long blond curls and blue eyes, couldn’t help herself.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen was 10 when she discovered her passion for fashion.

She makes no apology for her first-foot purchase: “They are beautiful quality, and since I’m not going out as much during the pandemic, it’s nice to have pretty slippers to wear around the house.”

Since childhood, Colleen has been drawn to clothes that are decades older than she is.

Her father collected and rode 19th-century bicycles, the big-wheeled ones that stand as high as your chest, and her mother loved touring historic homes and poking around in antiques shops in Lansing, Michigan, their hometown.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
What a mod, mod sleeve!

“I was doomed to love old things,” Colleen says, delighted.

As if on cue, Eisner, her ancient Maine Coon/Ragdoll catwalk cat, comes prancing through the living room.

A rescue, it is believed that he’s 14 years old, but he acts like he’s a kitten.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen grew up in Michigan.

It was a trip to the public library that got Colleen started on her fashion career.

When she was 10, she checked out Joel Lobenthal’s Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties and couldn’t put it down.

“When I was 12, I started making clothes that looked like they were from the Sixties – my mother bought me the Husqvarna sewing machine I still have – and searching in thrift shops for vintage clothes,” Colleen says. “In the 1990s, all through high school, I wore vintage 1960s and 1970s clothes. Those are still my favorite fashion decades.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen has written several books.

It wasn’t, she admits with no regrets, how the other kids were dressing.

After taking some art history courses at the local community college when she was still in high school, Colleen majored in the subject at Michigan State, the advance credits allowing her to graduate when she was only 21.

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. “I thought of being a college professor, but I didn’t see myself pursuing a PhD at that young age.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen in a coordinating covid-19 mask.

It was a Google search and the memory of something she saw on the 1990s TV sitcom Saved by the Bell that brought Colleen to FIT to pursue her master’s degree.

“One of the episodes of that show featured FIT, and it burned in my brain,” she says. “I had only been to New York City once before, and that was when I was in college.”

When she graduated in 2006, Colleen, who had been an intern at FIT, got a part-time secretarial job at the institute’s fashion museum.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen has had this desk since childhood.

That turned into a full-time job in the school’s textile department, where, Colleen says, “I learned how museums worked and what curators did. It was a perfect job.”

In 2008, she co-curated her first show, and in succeeding years, she wrote several books.

Her latest, Reinvention and Restlessness: Fashion in the ’90s, will be published next year to coincide with the fall 2021 FIT exhibit.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen’s working on her PhD.

In addition to writing books, conceiving and organizing exhibitions, giving tours of the museum and mentoring emerging peers, Colleen is working on her doctorate.

She’s scheduled to complete her degree at the London College of Fashion in 2023.

“The PhD is not about advancing my career,” she says. “It enriches what I’m already doing.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen’s decor is carefully curated.

Colleen, whose apartment is appointed with the contemporary artwork her husband collects and hundreds of books housed in floor-to-ceiling bookcases, defines her style as “eclectic, 1960s-vintage inspired.”

Her work-at-home station, for instance, is a vanity from her childhood that has been converted to a desk. Its top and front drawers were painted fire-engine red by her father to mask a stain.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Her new book will be published in 2021.

“I like to have a lot of white because in small spaces, white is bright,” she says, sitting on a chair and holding a black-and-white striped pillow that just happens to coordinate with her outfit. “And I add pops of color.”

Although Colleen didn’t plan it, Eisner is in sync with the sophisticated décor: He’s witch black with white whiskers.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen and Eisner: Comfortable and color-coordinated.

There’s a white spot on his chest and his nose and another on his stomach. His front paws are white, and his back paws, white from the toes through the ankles, make him look like he’s wearing a pair of UGGs.

Colleen loves the world of fashion and the role she plays in it.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Colleen’s work-at-home slippers.

“This job is consuming,” she says, adding that she wouldn’t ever think of doing anything else. “Everything I do, including travel, is related to it. I don’t have a lot of time to do other creative things; this is creative. My career is my life.”

She picks up Eisner and lays him in her lap, where he and she are mutually and totally comfortable.

And color-coordinated.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling