Ebell Magical History Tour: The Dating Game and Other Tales from our Costume Collection Curator

from Phyllis Hansen, Ebell Historian

May 3, 2021

Costume Committee Chair Denise Parga

I’ve drooled at the stunning collection of costumes parading by me during our annual Charter Day fashion shows. And I have examined the astonishing details on the statuesque mannequins “stepping out” at the campus for special occasions. But I had little idea of all the behind-the-scenes “stuff” there is to know about our exquisitely preserved, carefully catalogued, and lovingly tended dresses, gowns, suits, theatrical costumes, hats, shoes and even old makeup until I had a fascinating conversation with our current Costume Curator, Denise Parga.

For instance, just dressing the mannequins takes a trained eye. Putting a 1920s garment on a 1970s-era mannequin could be a challenge because, well, those mannequin body parts just might not be positioned in exactly the same places as they would have been fifty years earlier, thanks to changes in foundations as well as fashion. Then, I’ve been advised, our dressers take the color of the mannequin into consideration when choosing an outfit for it. Some of our “supermodels” are painted gray, not flesh tones, and need some lively colors to “bring them to life.”

I was surprised to learn this museum-worthy collection did not start out as such. Denise explained that its original purpose was not for preservation, but had been gradually accumulated by members of the past who donated them for use in theatre productions. “They weren’t treated very well,” she said, “and weren’t considered valuable.” Denise adds, “There were instances when a skirt was cut off a dress to just use the top!” It was not until recently when our first costume curator, Loyce Braun, recognized the collection for the treasure it is, procured a room for its preservation, and brought in expertise from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) to begin the cataloguing and preservation process.

Member Delores Kerr in vintage outfitThe collection includes reproduction pieces as well as originals representing every decade the Ebell has been in existence. Every garment gets carefully photographed and recorded with condition reports, detailed descriptions and care suggestions. The analyses are currently being uploaded as digital files. If a vintage piece is chosen to be modeled in a fashion show, extreme care is taken to prevent any tearing, makeup or perspiration stains.

Dating each item in the collection is half the fun (the other half is science)! Denise explains how the committee starts each investigation by examining the fonts on the labels, comparing them to a database of vintage labels. More clues are found in the construction. Are there zippers or does it close with other fasteners, like hooks and eyes that would indicate a pre-1930s piece? If zippers, are they metal or nylon? They also check hems. Old garments were hemmed with horsehair.

Dating hats

When dating the hats, the savvy committee has many a trick up its sleeves. They’ll check the shape of the crown, putting it on their heads to see how it fits. The vintage hat shapes reflect the hairdos it sits on. For example, a pre-1920s hat will have a crown that fits the Gibson girl up-dos.

One hat in particular, a sombrero, provided its own clue. Inside the ribbon lining the brim was a piece of 1950s-dated newspaper. This, they learned, was a “thing” at the time to help the hats fit snugly.


The burn test

Determining the date of fabrics, like those of lace, is also a bit of a science. Looking to see if it is handmade or machine produced is a first step. Checking for fiber content is also necessary to determine washability. In a recent case, Denise and committee members Karlene Taylor and Jackie Corkill did what they term a burn test. Snipping off a few strands from an inside seam, with no damage done to the garment, they lit a match to the fibers as they videotaped, extinguished and smelled the results. They then sent the tape to a costume fashion house where industry experts – Denise’s daughter (also a member) Chloe Ginsburg and her boss – helped determine the fiber content and if the piece was safe to launder.

Our costume collection extends beyond ready-to-wear and accessories. There is a group of vintage sewing supplies dating to World War II when our women were doing their part for the war effort. There are needles in tissue paper packets, snaps, wooden spool threads and records on index cards about the machines they brought in. Per Denise, “There is something very comforting looking at these. Our Ebell women were crafty, sewing and making repairs.”

We keep every little bit of our history we discover, including the pans of theatre makeup uncovered from the 1930s and 1940s, greasepaint and all. Finding 1930s newspaper lining the drawers in the theater room added to the joy of discovery. It’s going to be such a thrill when we are back in our Ebell building to enjoy all of this again.

Trio of costume display