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July 13, 2016
When Assistant Professor of Theatre Stephi Jorandby arrived at Northwest Missouri State University in 2014 and took stock of its costume collection, she discovered some incredible vintage pieces. But the collection was in disarray.
She found a day dress from the early 1900s that was cut up and stuffed in a scrap bin, and a beautiful pre-1930s black silk satin gown jammed between some Gothic robes.
“The more pieces of costume diaspora I found, the more I realized that this was not a project I would be able to tackle alone,” she said.
Jordanby soon contacted Northwest Archives and connected with a pair of students, Elizabeth Schneider and Hannah Mahnken, who were eager to help. They worked collaboratively, with guidance from Assistant Professor of History Dr. Elyssa Ford and University Archivist Jessica Vest, during the spring trimester to study the history and uses of some of the theater department’s oldest costumes.
“Hannah and Elizabeth are both incredibly speedy and diligent archivists,” Jordanby said. “Perhaps the biggest challenge they faced was having to do so much of this work in a fully-functioning costume shop. We actually had hundreds of costumes going through the shop for ‘Legally Blonde’ at the same time the archival work was being done.”
Through their research, Mahnken and Schneider learned of elaborate performances and costumes dating to the institution’s founding 1905. May Fete, an annual event known to celebrate the return of spring and the end of the academic year, was a popular festival during Northwest’s early decades that included folk dances and productions such as “Peter Pan” and “Aladdin’s Lamp.”
Perhaps their most interesting find was a version of Snow White’s iconic blue, red and yellow dress, which is now displayed in the foyer of the Ron Houston Center for the Performing Arts. Mahnken and Schneider determined the dress was worn for a 1974 production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” in Northwest’s Deerwester Theater and later in a 1995 production of “Into the Woods.”
The Deerwester Theater, named after Northwest’s first president, Frank Deerwester, was located in the former north wing of the Administration Building. It had hosted theater productions, lectures and University assemblies for decades. Costumes were stored near the stage and then moved to a fourth floor space after renovations to the theater in the 1970s.
The Snow White dress, however, was in the Charles Johnson Theater at the Olive DeLuce Fine Arts Building and was one of the few costumes spared on the fateful night of July 24, 1979 when a fire on the Administration Building’s fourth floor spread and destroyed the Deerwester Theater. Through conversations with Professor of Theatre Dr. Theo Ross, the students learned nearly all of the costumes worn in Northwest theater productions to that point were consumed in the fire.
Mahnken and Schneider located several costumes in Northwest’s collection from the 1920s and 1930s but determined the pieces probably were donated after the fire and not worn in Northwest productions. One of those pieces, an ornate pearl and beaded wedding dress also is displayed in the Ron Houston Center.
“We were feeling kind of discouraged that we couldn't match any of the costumes in the theater department to images of past productions at Northwest,” Mahnken said. “It wasn’t until we talked to Dr. Ross that we came to the now rather obvious conclusion that we couldn’t match any pieces from past productions because they had all been destroyed in the fire.”
Mahnken brought to the project her experience as an intern in the collections department of the Harry S. Truman Museum and Library, where she archived and photographed pieces the Trumans wore during Harry’s presidency. Mahnken also interned with Northwest Archives.
“I learned how to identify the type of fabric by lighting a loose string from the article of clothing on fire once it is removed from the garment,” she said. “How it burns and smells correlates to what kind of fabric it is. This is an important skill in noting what kind of fabric older clothing is made out of before tags were put in the seams.”
Schneider, of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Mahnken, of Schleswig, Iowa, completed their bachelor’s degrees during the spring in art and history, respectively.
“Being able to work with historic and vintage textiles in a low-pressure environment will be a valuable experience as they move forward in their careers,” Jordanby said. “Since most textile archival work is done in museums and libraries rather than theaters, researchers are typically working with very old, very delicate, very irreplaceable things. Since many of the items in our stock are durable enough for backflips and high kicks, they could explore the artifacts without worrying about damaging them. There are very few undergraduate programs that give students this much hands-on, laboratory, research experience in public history and museum studies – just one more thing that makes Northwest special and helps our Bearcats connect.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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