With its diverse collection of historical apparel spanning a plethora of centuries and themes, the University’s Textile and Costume Museum offers students the chance to see the culture of previous time periods through a new lens.
In the University’s early days near the beginning of the 20th century, professors would bring samples of textiles back from summer travels. Over time this tradition started the original collection within what was formerly called the Department of Home Economics.
In the 1980s, a costume history professor Rinn Cloud, sent a letter to alumni seeking historical apparel donations for the textile collection. Pamela Vinci, the current curator of the Textile and Costume Museum, was the graduate student who aided the professor in redefining the notable collection the museum has today. Historic garments started to pour in, expanding the future of exhibitions on campus.
In 1992, the Department of Textiles, Apparel and Merchandising received grant funding to renovate an old classroom into a museum gallery, as well as a collection storage and conservation work area. This was the first time the growing collection had a permanent home. The first exhibit on display in the new Textile and Costume Museum was “Costumes of Mexico.”
Through the front doors of the Human Ecology Building, one can follow the purple paw prints on the floor to a seemingly average room that is home to the Textile and Costume Museum, a small yet inviting space filled with large glass displays and informational signs. Currently, “Lingerie Redefined: Iconic Yet Overlooked Everyday Fashions 1900s-1920s” is on display.
On the far side of the room are “lingerie dresses” from the 1900s, taking their name from their lacy frills similar to lingerie. The dresses from this time were floor-lengh and marked by high collars, corsets and layers of petticoats.
On the opposite side of the room, in stark contrast, are the lingerie pieces of the 1920s. Within 20 years, women had discarded the corset, and welcomed the age of the flapper. With starting to work outside the home and gaining the right to vote, women’s lives changed and in turn, so did their fashions.
Vinci hopes the exhibit not only teaches visitors about the specific fashions and their evolution, but traces women’s history and the differences in society that led to these shifts in clothing, she said. One of the main focuses of the museum is to teach.
“Our exhibitions teach some subject matter. It’s not just about looking at pretty things, [we want] visitors to walk away having learned something about society, history, societal changes and of course, fashion and textiles,” Vinci said. “It is important for [University] students to have a well-rounded education while they’re here on campus.”
Behind the scenes in a room off to the side of the museum is where all of the items are stored, studied and preserved. A thermostat is closely monitored for the right temperature needed to store the old and sometimes fragile pieces. Gloves are required to handle anything kept in the large vaults. Lining the walls are various red dresses Vinci selected for Baton Rouge’s upcoming bicentennial celebrations, all worn by local women through the ages.
On the table lies a piece Vinci recently received — the deep red inaugural suit worn by Supriya Jolly Jindal, former first lady of Louisiana, which also happened to be designed by a University textile, apparel and merchandising alumnae. The dress will become a part of the “Louisiana First Families” collection, which includes items from the early 1970s to present day.
Vinci has been the curator for the entirety of the museum’s 25-year history. Along with help from students, she coordinates, plans, designs and creates every exhibit. The exhibit themes are mostly based around the various topics of research being conducted by graduate students and faculty within the department. Occasionally, exhibits feature important collections on loan from local collectors.
An exhibit of 100 years of women’s aprons and one based on feedsack dresses, which was the largest collection of feedsack clothing of any museum in the country, are among Vinci’s favorites.
Another notable exhibit centered around fashions worn by University students and faculty on campus from the 1920s to current day. The pieces on display ranged from ‘70s bell-bottom jeans to the beanie caps that were worn by male freshmen back when they were required to have shaved heads. A pair of flannel pajamas on display were worn to the first football game of the season sometime around the 1930s. Freshmen were once required to attend the first game and were often forced to wear pajamas as a form of ridicule, according to Vinci.
The collection is mostly comprised of donations from various sources. Donna Douglas, the actress best known for her starring role in “The Beverly Hillbillies,” donated many of her glamorous old Hollywood gowns to the museum posthumously.
The museum has also received countless inquiries over the years about lending items to the local community to national universities to places as far as Australia.
In the future, Vinci strives for one thing: growth. With an entire wing of the Human Ecology Building left vacant from the University preschool’s relocation, the museum aims to renovate and make the space, which is four times larger than the current room, into a new exhibition gallery that can be directly entered from the outside.
Students should carve out a block of time from their busy schedules and pay a visit to the hidden gem of a gallery to learn a thing or two about culturally and historically significant textiles and apparel.