A clothing collection tucked deep in the heart of campus hides many treasures
The door, locked to most, hides a secret of campus.
To the left, right and even straight ahead, the rooms overflow with clothes. Some are ‘60s patterns and trends, others are silk kimonos from the pre-1900s. There is even a 100-year-old replica of an 18th century French Court gown worn to costume balls.
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 was named after her in 1981 and became the Leila Old Historic Costume Collection.
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, collection curator Erika Iiams said.
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.
While attending UI, Douglas was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and participated in several sports. Her photos decorated the yearbooks from 1932 to 1934. Douglas was an accomplished athlete and won the university tennis championship as a freshman, Bill Graue, Douglas’ grandson said. Graue said his grandmother had a difficult childhood, and she even lived in an orphanage for a small period of time due to her mother’s health issues. Even through all the hardships with her mother’s health, 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 an English essay while attending UI.
Douglas did 60 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 granddaughter Marjory and her husband Irvin Graue donated her clothes, Iiams said.
“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.”
Iiams shows the collection with enthusiasm. She said her favorite piece is an embroidered silk shawl. The white silk was heavy with threads that covered the whole rainbow spectrum. The flowers on the shawl came in pink, yellow, blue, with leaves of detailed shades from green to orange to brown. The fringe along the edges hangs down almost a foot.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Iiams said, knowing there was no other answer than the affirmative. “I want one.”
Iiams said she 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 they had to get rid of several pieces in the collection, 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. She said although the flood was a disaster, it did help make her and other textile professors define what “useful” meant. The teaching collection was separated from the exhibit collection and more than half of the damaged items are physically available to students for use.
A malfunctioning dehumidifier in one of the rooms caused the flood, Iiams said. The malfunction occurred during fall break, so no one knew about it until facilities found it later in the week. The carpet was 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 currently in the process of 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 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 in the class they focus on what kind of condition an item is in when it is donated. If it is well-loved and worn out it’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. She said having an understanding of what the textiles are like and how they change makes it easier to address the needs of a particular customer.
At the same time, clothing and fashion is something we experience everyday and still don’t think about much, Evenson said. People can’t read a newspaper without some sort of news about the way people dress, she said.
“When cultures collide, it often happens over dress,” Evenson said.
More than just passing around a piece of fabric, Evenson said she often dresses students in particular garments so they understand what it is like to wear a sari. There’s the act of dressing by itself, and then there is the walking around and moving in a sari, Evenson said. She asks the students questions like “How does it feel to wear a sari all the time?” or, “How does it feel to wear a kimino?”
“If you understand why people dress the way they dress, you understand the whole rest of their society,” Evenson said. “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 these changes and see what it means in terms of fashion, but also what it means 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.”
Claire Whitley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Cewhitley24