That gown

Lisa Bertagnoli

—he must have it

Noren Ungaretti's closet is missing two beautiful, expensive dresses: a bolero-topped, balloon-hemmed Donna Karan and a cocktail dress from the late Gianni Versace's final collection.

She blames it on Champagne.

Last summer, Ms. Ungaretti invited Timothy Long, costume curator at the Chicago History Museum, to her Lincoln Park home for an afternoon chat. The two have known each other since Mr. Long joined the museum, as costume collection manager, in 1999.

After finishing a bottle of bubbly, Mr. Long sprang a proposition on Ms. Ungaretti: "Hey, let's go see what's in your storage closet." He deemed the two dresses museum-worthy and asked her to donate them.

"My daughter wanted the Donna Karan," Ms. Ungaretti says ruefully. But, she adds, "it's an honor to have something at the museum."

As keeper of the world's fifth-largest collection of fashion pieces, it is Mr. Long's job to wangle dresses from women like Ms. Ungaretti, a prominent socialite. So Mr. Long, 33, regularly attends society events, armed with a keen eye and a pocketful of business cards. When he sees a dress he wants, he taps the wearer on her shoulder with a few words: "When you're finished wearing that dress, give me a call."

It's trickier than it sounds: "I have to be careful about whom I approach because
I don't want to be not invited to parties," he says. He is not joking.

He also turns away many offers; not every flapper dress from grandma will be immortalized. "I say 'no' more often than I say 'yes' to prospective donors," Mr.
Long says. "People get mad. People have cried."

Topping his wish list right now is anything worn by future first lady Michelle Obama, especially the black-and-red Narciso Rodriguez frock she wore on Election Night. "I thought it was perfect," he says of the dress, which other observers referred to as the "butcher apron" or the "exploded tomato."


But flattery is part of the job. The elegant, soft-spoken Mr. Long moves easily in social circles; the museum's 150-member Costume Council includes the city's best-dressed women. He is tall and slim, with artfully messy auburn hair and a day
or two's worth of stubble on his chin. His conservative yet contemporary business attire — charcoal pants, a gray-blue shirt and tie, and light-gray fleece blazer, one winter day — hides a web of fashion-inspired tattoos. Both arms are covered, wrist to mid-bicep, with patterns inspired by the Art Nouveau embroidery adorning a gown that Bertha Honoré Palmer wore to the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

"As an academic, he is so hip," gushes Costume Council member and public-relations maven Carrie Lannon, who donated a 1998 Ferragamo evening gown, a gift to her from the Ferragamo family, to the museum. "We have a meeting every two months, and he looks different every time."

Interior designer Laura Barnett Sawchyn agrees: "He wears clothes so well, and he's handsome, slim and gorgeous." Mr. Long persuaded Ms. Sawchyn to donate a 2003 Issey Miyake gown to the collection, even though at the time the dress was still part of her active wardrobe.

For donors, there's a payoff in prestige: Biographical details of both giver and garment are displayed when the gown is exhibited.

But he doesn't always get what he wants. Mr. Long regrets that an important Issey Miyake stash from the estate of Muriel Newman, the Chicago art collector who died in 2008, likely will not end up at the Chicago History Museum. Ms. Newman famously donated her art collection to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, not the Art Institute of Chicago, and the executors of her estate aren't returning his calls. "I think that's the big one that got away," he says.

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