Research Resource: Costume at the Oakland Museum

The Oakland Museum of California has recently updated their website and is now featuring (at the top of the page, no less) their historic costume collection. The costume collection online features about 450 objects online, and provides some details about the objects that appear. In browsing through the online collection, it seems heavy on shoes, hats and accessories – with few couture or designer garments (though James Gallanos is certainly present, as well as a few pieces from I. Magnin).

c. 1926-1927 *(see below for full catalog entry)

However, it does become clear that the focus is really on the history of California. Ethnic and Sportswear are included in this online selection, as well as artwear (including shoes by Gaza Bowen) and all types of uniforms (Military, nurse, employee, even campfire girl). A number of objects relate to the early days of the gay pride movement. Film costume is sparce, but it does include a pair of Eddie Murphy’s shoes from Beverly Hills Cop.

If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s certainly a place to start.

*Catalog Entry: 2008.78.3 c. 1926-1927 

This brown satin dress–with a scoop neck and short sleeves–is decorated with bands of the self same brown satin, as well as beading done in the form of flowers. The beads are sewn directly to the dress, mostly 6 petal flowers in various combinations of blue, green, amber color, pink and purple beads; they form an eight inch band around the skirt, above the wide hem. The dress has a dropped waist, and the top of the skirt is shirred with four bands of stitching. A band of the satin (about 1 1/8 inches wide) drops from the proper left shoulder, front and back, is loose to the dropped waist, where it is caught with a horizontal band of machine stitching, and then falls free again to the hem. At the proper left shoulder a lozenge-shaped piece of beaded brown satin (centered with a 4 petal pink flower) is stitched to hold the decorative bands.

Mary Acelia Chamberlain, who wore this dress, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1926. Although she taught in the San Francisco School System all her working life, she was also an accomplished musician, playing the violin. She performed at the Claremont Hotel. According to family history, she also entertained service men, playing the violin, while she was still in high school. She was bornn August 28, 1905 in Philadelphia, PA and moved to California at the death of her grandfather, before July of 1906. She died December 20, 2005 at the age of 100.

Used: Mary Acelia Chamberlain | University Of California, Berkeley | Claremont Hotel | Adult ~ female | Musician

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Marlene Dietrich: a film & a costume/fashion resource


Noir film costume design is often gone uncredited – but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival comes this weekend to the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and one of its presentations is a Noir film called The Woman Men Yearn For, starring Marlene Dietrich.

Via the Film Noir Foundation newsletter:

She’s a Femme Fatale

“Before she shot into stardom with Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), Marlene Dietrich had a brief career in German silent films. The Film Noir Foundation is proud to co-present one of these rarely screened films, Kurt Bernhardt’s The Woman Men Yearn For (1929) at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. On his way to his honeymoon, a young industrialist encounters a seductive beauty (Dietrich), traveling with a mysterious male companion. When she begs the young man to help her, events spin out of control. For more information on the festival, running July 14 through 17, visit the SFSFF website.” See the full lineup here

On a related note, the Marelene Dietrch Collection Berlin includes a huge selection of her clothing and accessories. Those looking to research her film costume and offf-screen style should probably start here. The collection includes:

  • Over 3,000 textile items from the twenties to the nineties, including 30 film- and 40 show costumes, by among others Jean Louis, Travis Banton, Edith Head, Eddie Schmidt.
  • 1,000 individual items from her private wardrobe, 50 handbags, 150 pairs of gloves, by among others: Elizabeth Arden, Balenciaga, Balmain, Chanel, Courrèges, Dior, Givenchy, Guerlain, Irene, Knize, Lee, Levis, Schiaparelli, Ungaro.
  • 400 hats, 440 pairs of shoes by, among others: Agnés, Aprile, Cavanagh, Lilly Dache, Delman, Edouard, John Frederics, Massaro.

*Image above via Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin, and the exhibition “Marlène Dietrich. Creation d´un mythe

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Exhibition: At Home During Wartimes (Kalispell, MT)

I recently discovered that the Conrad Mansion Museum in Kalispell, Montana is currently hosting a special costume exhibit titled At Home During Wartimes, on view through October 15, 2011. Special thanks to Tove Hermanson, who edits the Costume Society of America‘s monthly E-Newsletter, for alerting me (and all CSA members) to this unique exhibit.

According to the webpage, At Home During Wartimes includes both items worn on the front, as well those worn by the Conrad family at home during wartimes. The breadth of history is quite astounding, and goes as far back as the Civil and Spanish War America War, through WWI and WWII and into the Korean War. Uniforms as well as what ‘the folks back home’ were wearing are shown in an effort to provide insights into how wartime shortages and demands affected the clothing industry.

For further details, including address, hours visit or call 406-755-2166 for more information and special event information. Details about the exhibit can be found on this Facebook page.

If you end up going – I’d love to hear more about the exhibit!


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Fashion History Find: Sacramento Mod, Deco and More

Lulu Forever in Sacramento

About a month ago, I found myself in Sacramento with time to waste. Rather quickly, I found myself quite a ways off the beaten path at a vintage shop called Lulu Forever. Once inside, it became clear that the buyer there has a great eye for both historically relevant and unique pieces: The shop held a wide range of clothing from a variety of time periods. Of particular note were the full skirted 1950s dresses, adorable pink polyester pants suits, and small (but well selected) section of menswear. I scrolled through the racks and found myself breathless with anticipation: what would I find on the next hanger? One piece caught my eye before I’d even entered the store: a textbook perfect example of mod fashion.

Grey Mod Dress

The grey mini-dress, shown below, with a white peter pan collar and single front pocket represented the epitome of the 1960s “mod” style. It referenced a number of well known designers and images.

Mod dress at Lulu Forever, Sacramento

Both Haute Couture and pop culture reference can be found here. A high fashion dress  created by Yves Saint Laurent in 1958 for Dior (though it retained the heavy under structure despite appearing loose and ‘free’) is remarkably similar to the dress at Lulu’s. Though it can also be easily compared to the work of commercial designer Mary Quant in the early 1960s (as well as her own personal style). Yet a third reference draws comparisons to 1960s popular film, specifically Anthea Sylbert’s costume designs for Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Of course, the look was also parodied by John Waters in the movie Hairspray (1988, CD Van Smith).

Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, 1958 (Costume Institute, MET)
Mary Quant, c.1965 (via Monpti Parapluie)

Cork Purse

Though I’d previously explored the use of cork as an alternative material for shoes, I had not realized that it was also used for handbags-perhaps by individuals rather than commercially.

Square purse of cork, at Lulu Forever

As I’d not really encountered cork handbags ‘in the wild’, a little researching was required. I found a nearly identical version for sale on etsy, and a circular example in a private collection. All appeared to be made of recycled materials (soda or wine corks) and a pre-fab zippered purse. Ferragamo is said to have created the first wedge shoe in 1936. [i] Wood and cork were used to create these soles and were frequently covered with cloth, leather and decorated with sequins, embroidery or bows. [ii] Due to a shortage of steel in 1936, which Ferragamo used usually used to reinforce the arches of his shoes, he created a sole made from a wedge of cork-leading to the trend for platform sandals in the 1930s and 1940s. [iii]

It’s easy to see that given these shortages and the cost of traditional materials, recycling wine-bottle and soda-pop cork could be an easy and innovative (admittedly, more research could be done on the use of recycled materials during the depression era). I’d love to hear from those who might be working in this area.

High cork platform shoes with gold kid strap, ca. 1937, photograph by Cecil Beaton (Conde Naste)
Vintage 1930's Cork linings from bottle caps are glued into a zippered purse (Via Janet Cooper Designs)

As an aside, Lulu Forever also contained a zip-up, striped, polyester, shorts-jumper with labels from Lacoste for I.Magnin. I fell in love with it and I could not leave without buying it (I wore it to a BBQ on the 4th of July).  If you ever find yourself in Sacramento, I’d suggest a visit – you just might find an icon there yourself.

[i] Mendes, Valerie and Amy De La Haye. 20th Century Fashion. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999. 86

[ii] Probert, Cristina. Shoes in Vogue Since 1910. New York: Abbeville Press, 1981, 28

[iii] Pattison Angela and Nigel Cawthorne.  A Century of Shoes: Icons of Style in the 20th century Australia: Universal International, 1997. 10.

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New Historic Film Archive (and Costumes) Now Online


Given that costume designers sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve, it’s nice to be able to tell you about a new authoritative archive that emphasizes the historical import of this often under-valued craft. Earlier this week I received notice that the  Margaret Herrick Library (of the Los Angeles based Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences: i.e. OSCAR!) had finally released its online archive of Production Art.

It’s not the entirety of the Graphic Arts collection, but much to my delight, it includes a good deal of film costume art! Of the 5,300 records in the database, nearly half include images.  The database also includes “production design drawings, animation art, storyboards and paintings” and date from the 1920s to the present day.

It’s a huge resource for film costume historians, and thankfully provides credit for both costume designers, as well as illustrators (often two different individuals).  As Library Director Linda Mehr notes:

“We’re very happy to be able to make this database more widely available to researchers, students and film enthusiasts. . . . Our hope is that it will bring much-deserved attention to the costume and production designers, sketch artists, animators, and other artists who have contributed so much to filmmaking.”

"The Spanish Dancer", 1923 by Howard Greer (via AMPAS)

To give you just a quick snapshot of what’s available: The database includes nearly 40 records for Gilbert Adrian; 20 for Milo Anderson; almost 30 for Travis Banton; 70 for Marjorie Best; 19 for Howard Greer and many, many more.

Not surprisingly, my interest is in the illustrations by Natacha Rambova, Gilbert Adrian, Georges Barbier and Erte (and of course those depicting Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova).

Though most images are rights-protected (i.e. you can see them on your computer screen, but can’t insert them into a blog post or save them to your computer), a few have been cleared for media purposes. Those interested in information on additional materials (or to make an appointment to view an item that does not yet include a reference image) are encouraged to contact graphic arts librarian Anne Coco at A full list of their databases is available here.

AMPAS Production Art Database


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Mary Tuma: Fabric, The Body and Mariano Fortuny


Jennifer Heath, a UC Press author (The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics and Land of the Unconquerable) recently turned my attention to contemporary artist Mary Tuma. Having only seen a photograph of her ‘tall fashions,’ and knowing that her work stemmed from in interest in liberating women, I became intrigued and wanted to know more.

A native of Oakland, CA she earned a BS in Costume and Textile Design from University of California – Davis.

Her artists statement notes:

internal systems III, 2008. poly-satin ribbon, yarns and string. variable. By Mary Tuma.

“My work addresses the issues of the transformation of the body and the spirit through the use of clothing forms applied to found objects or placed within a contextual environment. The use of old fabrics and found objects is important in creating a work or environment that evokes a feeling of loss, or distant memory.”

Not surprisingly, given her interest in crochet and sewing, her work reminds me of Ruth Asawa’s basket-like sculpture. Heath filled me in a little bit more on her recent work, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice: “[It’s] huge. . .  but based on the fashions of Marino Fortuny, the kind of Greek revival dresses that helped liberate women from corsets. To Mary, these are meaningful in terms of  the Arab Spring (she is half Palestinian). The Three Pillars just went to a show in Kuwait. . . .  Mary teaches fibre arts and fashion at UNCC.” Mariano Fortuny’s designs (worn by the likes of Lillian Gish and Isadora Duncan) and their influence on Tuma’s work seemed a unique connection. Happily I had a chance to ask Tuma about her work directly:

Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (Kuwait) By Mary Tuma (Photo Via Jennifer Heath)

Fashion Historia: What is the significance of fashion history in your current piece, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice?

Mary Tuma: “Fashion is a human rights issue. One can see this clearly in the current debate over the right or requirement of women of Islamic faith to wear head scarves. Mariano Fortuny’s work has always stood out in my mind as a great example of the fashionable un-corseted natural body of woman— a celebration of unaltered human form. For me, his work speaks volumes about woman’s right to exist in her natural form apart from cultural shackles. Of course Fortuny’s Delphos dresses (on which I based formal aspects of my piece Three Pillars) were inspired by ancient Greek statuary, which serves as a reference to a culture involved in early experiments in democracy. So, for that reason, the Fortuny model seemed very appropriate for a piece about the current “Arab Spring,” which is what Three Pillars addresses. For me, democracy is also a feminist issue, and is meaningless if it’s not. As the Arab World changes, it is my hope that women will step up and take an increasingly integral role in forming new governments and creating policy. So Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (which also spells LUV by the way!) is my way of hoping to inspire feminism in the face of changes and to inspire women to stay in the dialogue.”

Fashion Historia: How did your education at UC Davis help prepare you for your work as an artist ?

Mary Tuma: “My education at UCD Design prepared me in many ways to function as an artist working in fiber materials and methods. Apart from learning to work with dyes, garment forms, etc., I took some very important classes that directed my thinking. History of Costume (with JoAnn Stabb) was one of these and it was where I first learned about Fortuny and his amazing work.

Homes for the disembodiednext piece, 2000, remade 2003. 50 meters of continuous fabric, fallen trees, thread, stones, wire. approximately 10' x 25' x 7' (dimensions variable)

I have been fascinated since then with the mystery of the permanently pleated silk. Three Pillars was my first experiment in playing with permanently pleating silk after a student brought me an article from the web on how to “fake” it! The other two very influential classes were Textiles of the World 1 & 2…. These three courses have influenced my direction with my work in a sort of constant way. I did go on after earning my BS in Textile and Costume Design from UCD to study Women’s Fashion area at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] and Costume Design for Theater at Humboldt State University. Of course all of these experiences contributed to my knowledge base and have given me a unique perspective from which to work. My MFA is in Fine Art from the University of Arizona, where I studied Fibers with Gayle Wimmer. It was at the University of Arizona where I began to feel the difference between Art, Craft and Design and where I was able to negotiate between these areas to develop my practice.”

I’m thrilled to be able to share this unique use of fashion history in contemporary art. I think Mary Tuma’s work a new iteration of the 1980s ‘art to wear’ movement (which holds strong ties to California). I’d love to have your thoughts and comments on her work.

Additional Resources:

For more on Classicism in fashion see the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s online exhibition Goddess (2003).

For more on Mary Tuma, please see the Institute for Middle Eastern Understanding.

*Image above is of a Mariano Fortuny Delphose dress (1930) via the MET, CI (2009.300.2606, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the estate of Mary Boocock Leavitt, 1974)


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