Listening to Clothes
Archive Captures Women’s History Through Dress
Above Chapin Auditorium, high up in Mary E. Woolley Hall, we climb the stairs to reach the Mount Holyoke Clothing Archive. I feel a ghost hunter’s anticipation as my guide unlocks the first door and I step into a storage room under the eaves. My overwhelming impression, in this crowded space, is of the ebullience of women’s garments ranging back over more than 170 years, a colorful history in cloth.Theatre Costume Shop Assistant Anna Rose Keefe ’13, my guide, tells me that few items have a known provenance. Most must speak for themselves. The clothes, donated by alumnae and others, are sorted by decade. As I follow the narrative of fashion through the small rooms, I see that, among other things, it’s a branch of art history. A cream wool cape with glass beading (left) and corded trim belongs to 1890s Art Nouveau.
All the clothes, though, are too fragile to be worn on stage. Theatre Arts Costume Shop Manager Elaine Bergeron has explained that the department, custodian of the archive, uses the collection for study and to copy for costumes. In addition to work on shows, Keefe’s tasks include assisting with sorting, cleaning, mending, and, where resources allow, conserving pieces, and entering their details in a new cataloguing system. The department has had some items digitally photographed, Bergeron says, and is working toward making, with the future help of Library, Information, and Technology Services, a searchable online resource for research in textile design, construction, and fashion history.
After the doors are closed and the locks double-checked, I am reluctant to leave. My mind is full of what I’ve seen and the whispers of garments I didn’t get to look at. How can I leave them up here? They have so much more to say.
—By Lynne Barrett ’72
This article appeared in the spring 2012 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
April 17, 2012