This article is fifth in a series on hidden treasures at Cornell.
Most college students spend a lot of time thinking about their clothing. But even though they may spend hours searching for the right outfit to wear to a job interview or party, they only see the outfit as part of their wardrobe. In the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection, however, clothing has become a part of history.
The costume collection, which is located in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall (MVR), currently consists of approximately 10,000 items. There is a moderately large ethnographic collection featuring traditional dress from many different parts of the world as well as a textile collection featuring quilts, tapestries and wall hangings.
However, the majority of the collection is fashion-related. It features clothing dating as far back as the 18th century up to modern times. The collection includes clothing for men, women and children as well as fashion accessories.
Basically, it’s “anything from the skin out that you might wear, or carry, or use as part of dress,” said the collection’s curator, Prof. Charlotte Jirousek, textiles and apparel.
The collection was started in the 1920s by Prof. Beulah Blackmore, textiles and apparel, to be used as teaching samples. Fortunately, “unlike [the curators of] a lot of teaching collections, [Blackmore] was careful to collect social history and all the records” of each piece she acquired, Jirousek said. “We have pretty good records on our collection for that reason.”
A portion of the costume collection can be seen in the Elizabeth Schmeck Brown Gallery on the third floor of MVR. This set of glass display cases features at least one new exhibit each semester.
“Obviously, it’s a very small fraction of what we have in the collection that can be seen in the gallery at any given time,” Jirousek explained, “but that’s true of any museum collection.”
The current exhibit features items donated by the Langdon family. The Langdons are known as founders of the city of Elmira and for their connection to Samuel Clemens, more commonly known as Mark Twain. Charles Langdon met Clemens while they were both traveling around Europe and the Middle East. During their travels, Clemens saw a picture of Langdon’s sister, Olivia, and fell in love. They eventually married, and the Clemens and Langdon families remained very close. The exhibit showcases what Jirousek described as “very elegant, wonderful clothing from about the 1870s through to about 1900, including things that [the Langdon and Clemens families] picked up in their travels.”
One of the most impressive aspects of the exhibit is how well-documented the pieces on display are. An outfit from Langdon’s trip to Turkey, for example, and the children’s clothing, are accompanied by photographs of members of the Langdon family wearing the outfits.
Jirousek and others have also been able to clear up the question of who the dresses on display belonged to.
“We have been able to research a couple of pieces that we have, and have concluded that dresses that we thought belonged to [Olivia Langdon Clemens’s sister] actually did belong to Mrs. Samuel Clemens [Olivia],” Jirousek said.
This conclusion was based mainly on the size of the dresses in comparison to others.
The remainder of the collection is kept in a separate storage area in MVR and is available for viewing only by appointment. It primarily serves as a tool for teaching and research.
“I’m teaching a course right now called [TXA 675:] Aesthetics and Meaning in World Dress, and I bring examples of clothing from the history of Western fashion and from the history of world dress to class every day during the semester,” Jirousek said, adding that she does the same for her TXA 125: Art, Design, and Visual Thinking class as well.
Students benefit from being able to see these materials up close. For example, Jirousek pointed out that “fashion design students can look [at] and study the construction of garments from a period and take inspiration from it for their own design.”
Kimberly McAndrews ’06 agreed, saying, “It’s commendable for Cornell to have something like this on hand. It’s a great resource for [College of] Human Ecology students when they’re designing their own creations.”
Other fields of study also examine the clothing and textiles. Freshman writing seminars, anthropology classes and theater classes are a few examples of groups that have come to see the collection. It is occasionally viewed by groups from the local community as well.
Research work with the collection focuses mainly on history.
“Clothing is a great piece of evidence of what life was like in another period,” Jirousek said. “We tend to think of clothing as just clothes, but the fact is that every time you get dressed you are making a statement about who you are.”
She proceeded to explain how although what we wear is a personal decision, that decision is influenced by the cultural norms of society. Therefore, she said, by looking at clothing from a certain era, one can get a fairly good sense of what people were like.
“It’s a very interesting way to look at what’s going on in a particular society at a particular time,” Jirousek added.
The collection’s holdings are listed in an online catalog which, for some of the listings, also includes pictures. According to Jirousek, the textiles and apparel department is also working on adding an online gallery of past exhibits for the display cases. This will be available on the website within the next week.
Archived article by Courtney Potts