Fashion and Theatrical Costumes Trace Ebell History

by Loyce Braun (April 2013)

In a small, windowless room hidden away on the second floor of the Ebell, a silent treasury of silks and satins, feathers and furs, parasols and petticoats, top hats and tuxedos testify to the fancies and ambitions of the women of the Ebell over our history of more than 100 years. This is a collection of clothing and costumes donated by members from the Club’s very beginning. Its purpose was to inspire and enhance the Ebell’s programs, from club commemorations to pageants and plays.

As the Ebell membership dwindled, use of the collection also receded. In recent years, various hard-working members gathered all the pieces from various hiding places in the clubhouse into the small costume closet. With the assistance of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, the items were dated and catalogued.

Still, most members were only faintly aware of what an outstanding resource lay right over their heads, as it were. Beginning in late 2012, a new Costume Committee opened the doors to the inner sanctum on the second floor and, stunned by the extent of the collection crammed into an impossibly small space, has undertaken to move the bulk of it to more spacious quarters on the third floor.

The collection itself can be broadly divided into “fashion”–antique and vintage clothes that were worn in daily life and donated to the Ebell, and “theatrical” –items that were specifically made, very often by the members themselves, to be worn as costumes in performance.

The “fashion” collection has been moved to the third floor where the extent of it makes even more unbelievable the notion that it all burst forth from one small room below. In this collection, dating from 1850 to a few garments from the 1980s, are dresses, coats, capes, skirts, caftans, hats, hat-pins, shoes, shawls, scarves, jabots, dickies, fans, parasols, purses and a smattering of jewelry. As work progresses, these items, now organized chronologically, are being photographed for an online catalogue and will be shifted from wood and plastic hangers to padded hangers as funds become available. Items are being examined for needed repairs and carefully stabilized. This is the heart of the collection and it is an endless source of speculation and enchantment for the Costume Committee.

The “theatrical” collection, an utterly intriguing miscellany of hand-made costumes, includes Colonial dresses, cowgirl and Indian outfits, feathered headpieces, jeweled headbands, and a collection of toga-inspired tunics and draperies large enough to allow our entire current membership to prance about like Isadora Duncan. What were our members up to in days of yore?

A significant group of authentic Chinese and Japanese garments coexist with a truly astonishing group of harem outfits originating from a San Francisco costumer and used, if ever, for no one knows what. There is a large group of tuxedoes complete with top hats, and boxes of starched shirts and shirt fronts and detachable collars and cuffs. It is hardly possible to enter this fantasy land without entertaining some flights of fancy of one’s own.

This issue of the bulletin is intended to introduce or reintroduce Ebell members to the costume collection and to bring it into 2013 by sharing some evocative memories of our own about what we wore and how intertwined our clothes are with what we do and how we see ourselves.

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