Just because I couldn’t forget about this story I wrote for the University of Idaho campus newspaper a year or so ago, i wanted to put it here too.
The door, locked to most, hides a secret of campus. To the left and right, and even straight ahead, rooms overflow with clothes. Some are ‘60s patterns and trends, others are silk kimonos from pre-1900. There is even a 100-year-old replica of an 18th century French Court gown worn to costume balls in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
The Leila Old Historic Costume Collection commands much of the first floor, which is actually upstairs, of Gertrude L. Hays Hall. The collection first started in the early 1900s, when a gift was given to the family consumer science department by an alumnus. Leila Old, a professor at the University of Idaho, organized the clothes in 1970 after almost 30 years of donations and gifts. It became the Leila Old Historic Costume Collection after her in 1981. There are over 10,000 items in the collection, dating from the Civil War to the present, and all articles have some connection to the University of Idaho.
One collection was donated by a woman who travelled all over the world and bought fabric to make her own clothes. Marjory MacVean Douglas, a UI graduate of 1936, designed many of her own fashions, including a 1960s dress and coat set. The fabric was white and gold, with embroidered flowers, and the lining was an unadulterated coral with quilted stitching.
Douglas, Marjory MacVean while attending UI, was a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and participated in several sports. Her photos decorated the yearbooks from 1932 to 1934. Douglas was an accomplished sports woman and won the university tennis championship as a freshman, Bill Graue, Douglas’ grandson said. Graue said his grandmother had a difficult childhood and she lived in an orphanage for a small period of time due to her mother’s health issues. Even through it all Douglas wrote in an essay about “small things that only people who love you can do for you.”
“My Mother’s love has meant more to me than anything else in the world,” Douglas wrote in and English essay while attending UI.
“That appreciation was always evident to me on the receiving end of her love,” Graue said.
Douglas did sixty charity fashion shows in Seattle after her graduation and went on to own her own fabric store in the ‘50s and ‘60s called the Golden Thimble. She also put on one-woman fashion shows using her own styles and high-end fabrics from all over the world. Her clothes were donated by granddaughter Marjory and her husband Irvin Graue.
“I think it’s fair to say that my grandmother was beautiful, gracious, charming, kind and confident,” Graue said. “She had a great sense of humor and was very down to earth. While beauty fades, in her case slowly, these other qualities were keys to her success in her charitable and business endeavors … she applied herself diligently to her passions.”
Collection curator Erika Iiams shows the collection with enthusiasm, pulling out gown after gown. Her favorite piece is an embroidered silk shawl. The white silk was heavy with threads that covered the whole rainbow spectrum. Flowers were pink, yellow, blue, with leaves of detailed shades from green to orange to brown. The fringe along all the edges hung down almost a foot. Iiams looked at it with a smile as she wrapped it around a dress form.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Iiams said, knowing there was no other answer than the affirmative. “I want one.”
Iiams recruits several family consumer science students to help accession, or record, all clothing articles, patterns, jewelry, magazines and accessories after a flood in the fall threatened to damage the materials. Even though the collection had to get rid of several pieces, students in textile and design classes can still utilize some damaged clothes.
Professor Sandra Evenson said students use the fabrics taken from the collection, “culled,” in their own designs as well as in class. Evenson said that while the flood was a disaster it did help make them, her and other textile professors, determine what “useful” meant. The teaching collection was separated more distinctly from the exhibit collection and over half of the damaged items are physically available to students for use.
A malfunctioning dehumidifier in one of the rooms caused the flood. The malfunction occurred during fall break, and so no one knew it had happened until facilities found it later that week. The carpet had been soaked through and some of the clothes had mildewed. Some items had water damage directly. Iiams bought acid-free storage boxes for the items and is in the process or wrapping and storing all the pieces in the exhibit collection.
Evenson said she uses the teaching collection in all of her classes, including a textiles class, History of Western Dress and Dress and Culture. She said they have labs where students identify the fabric just by looking at it or touching it. The students used to take a garment from the collection and do a complete study of it, identifying the fabric, the style, the design, and what it said about the culture at the time. Evenson uses the collection in part to show it off and so students can touch and feel and smell the real thing.
“I like to use a lot of pictures and a lot of videos, but really it is the dress and textiles that are very sensual,” Evenson said. “They have certainly a feel, a look, they have a taste, weight and a smell, a sound, there’s a texture. I really want students to experience that.”
She said they focus on what kind of condition an item is in when it is donated. If it is well loved and worn out, that’s OK because then students can see what happens to silk over time. Evenson said the collection is useful for students because they might end up developing parallel products for a particular costumer, and understanding what the textiles are like and how they change makes it easier to address the needs of that customer.
At the same time, clothing and fashion is something we experience every day and don’t think about it that much, Evenson said. People can’t read a newspaper without some sort of news about the way people dress.
“When cultures collide it often happens over dress,” Evenson said of a recent case with Ambercrombie and Fitch refusing to hire a young woman who wore a hijab.
More than just passing around an item, Evenson often dresses students in particular items so they can understand what it is like to wear a sari. There’s the act of dressing, this process, and then there is walking around and moving in a sari, Evenson said. She asks them questions like ‘How does it feel to wear a sari all the time?’ ‘How does it feel to wear a kimino?’
“The Elizabethan gown weighs a ton. No one would be able to get dressed by themselves,” Evenson said. “They would need a maid to help them get dressed, and that tells you something about society. If you understand why people dress the way they dress, you understand the whole rest of their society. It’s really a lens into so much more.”
From petticoats to hoops to bustles to “short dresses and running in high heels,” Evenson said students and faculty can track that change and see what those changes meant in terms of fashion, but also what it meant for everyday life.
“Ever since we have become human, clothing is a part of our everyday life, and to be able to touch and feel clothes that real people wore a hundred years ago is a way to understand something about what their lives were like,” Evenson said. “That’s what we get to do with this collection. The kinds of choices they had to make, why they made them, what they were trying to say with what they were wearing, what message are they trying to send with this. It’s a gateway to how people lived in another place and another time and what was important to them.”
The stacks of gray boxes and racks of clothes hide colorful silks, worn lace and heavy brocades. There are so many treasures in the collection from the Graue donations, to dresses which are westernized forms of ethnic clothing whose purpose was to make the wearer look exotic when out in society. That particular collection of six dresses was owned and worn by a daughter of the Woolworth family, a donation from a family consumer science alumnus.
“This is such an amazing resource,” Iiams said. “It is a hidden gem students should want to see and make use of.”