Clothes Make the Woman

Posted by Denise M. Parga and Chloé A. Ginsburg

February 1, 2024

The Costume Committee recently had the immense pleasure of hosting one of our own
Ebell members, Dr. Velina Hasu Houston, and her students in the USC graduate
dramatic writing program for an exciting new project designed by Dr. Stacy Brightman
and Dr. Houston, who holds the title of distinguished Professor of Theatre in Dramatic
Writing at USC. Entitled “Clothes Make the Woman,” the project required Dr.
Houston’s students to view selected costumes from our collection and be inspired by
these clothes to write short plays.

Professor Houston explained the genesis of this project: “Since the Middle Ages, the phrase or similar phrases related to clothes make the man” have appeared in literature. Clothes, however, also make the woman. In a historical context, clothes may be artifacts that reveal dimensions of a time period,
what a woman was like, why she had to dress a certain way, why she chose to dress a
certain way, and how she was perceived. Clothes can be indicators of culture, race,
socioeconomic circumstances, and gender-based politics that speak to the actualities
of a particular historical period.”

On August 28, 2023, and September 11, 2023, the graduate students met with members
of the Ebell Costume Committee to view The Ebell’s historical clothing archives. Suzi
Click joined us in the first meeting and we each brought our unique knowledge and
to inform and converse with the students.

The Costume Committee selected costumes and hats from the 1930s through the
1960s. It also displayed a 1950s bullet bra and crinoline on a mannequin to give
context to the 1950s silhouette and to show how women built up their silhouettes using
undergarments. At the sessions, we provided background regarding the changes in
silhouette from the 30s natural shape to the 40s strong shape, when women were
replacing men in the workforce. We explained how society imposed a more feminine
silhouette in the 50s, when men returned home from the war and reentered the
workforce. We discussed how the 60s went back to celebrating youth culture like the

Each decade the clothes have a conversation with what is happening socially and
economically. While some may view fashion as frivolous, clothes are a visual
representation of history, and The Ebell clothes show the history of our members and
of women in Los Angeles. The collection reveals members’ tastes, their travel history,
and their interactions with the world. Many of the dresses showed that these women
had a love of interesting textiles, details like embroidery, beautiful fabrication and
craftsmanship. And while sometimes the clothes were more subdued, the hat
collection shows these women still found ways to express themselves creatively.


Finally, on November 27, 2023, eight graduate students’ plays were performed as cold readings by professional actors. The costumes that inspired their works were displayed. The talented actors captured the students’ words and captivated the audience. Not surprisingly, two of the plays were set in tailor shops, and a third play was set in a studio costume workroom. The audience was taken on a
rollercoaster of emotions and themes, ending the evening in roaring laughter.

The Costume Committee looks forward to more opportunities to share and discuss the Ebell’s
impressive collection with members and the public.

We are also open for small tours by appointment.