Steele dropped out of high school when she was 15, then attended Dartmouth for undergrad and Yale for her doctoral studies in modern European cultural and intellectual history. In her first semester there, a classmate's paper on the Victorian corset led Steele to an epiphany: she wanted to study fashion.
"It was just like a lightbulb went on," Steele said. "All of my courses, after that, whatever the assignment was, I would write about the history of fashion."
Her professors balked when she presented the idea of a doctoral dissertation "on the erotic aspects of Victorian fashion," but Steele pressed ahead and wrote it anyway. "I'm nothing if not stubborn, and I was convinced that they would realize eventually that of course fashion was a perfectly valid field to go into."
Nevertheless, Steele says she was "completely unemployable" for years after she graduated and ended up as an adjunct professor of fashion history at NYU, Columbia, Parsons, and FIT. She didn't have a "real full-time job" until she was named the chief curator at the Museum at FIT in 1997. She was named its director in 2003.
Since getting that first job, Steele has written books about shoes and the intersection of Eastern and Western modes of dressing and founded the scholarly journal Fashion Theory. At the museum, Steele has curated exhibits on everything from corsets to Japanese fashion. The exhibit she has planned for next year, called Queer Style: From the Closet to the Catwalk, will focus on gay designers.
"I think that's kind of one of the most important and fascinating shows that I've ever worked on because it makes you look at the whole history of modern fashion from a new angle," Steele said. "Everybody knows that there's lots of gay people in fashion, and there have been lots of gay designers: Dior, Saint Laurent, Versace, et cetera. But nobody's ever really thought consciously to put the gayness back into fashion history and say, 'Why are there so many gay people in fashion?' and 'Is there a gay aesthetic?' and 'What have been the influences of having so many gay people in fashion?'"
"When I saw that Raf was going to be at Dior, I was just like 'Yay!'" she said. "Dior was someone who really experimented with silhouettes and line and Raf's perfect for that. And then with Hedi Slimane, that sort of androgynous sexiness is in a way an important part of the Saint Laurent DNA."
Both designers have graduated to new heights in their professions. But in a way, Steele founded her field via her own will and determination. She said that's the key to being successful in any area of fashion: keeping at it.
"Once I knew I wanted to do fashion I just did it — even though I wasn't making any money at it," Steele said. "And I think that if you do love fashion and you want to go into fashion, you have to be immensely self-directed and just do it. I think that's the main thing."
Photo: Valerie Steele photographed by Aaron Cobbett.