Few Beloiters know about it, but Beloit’s theater department has gradually built a collection of historically significant garments. Today, the collection contains approximately 400 items, received primarily through alumni donations. After a hiatus of three decades, the collection has finally garnered attention.
Before 1988, the antique textiles were stored on metal hangers and tightly packed onto two large racks. In this state, they were at risk of being damaged. In 1988, the costumes were removed from hangers, wrapped in cloth, and placed in available boxes. A small grant allowed for 5 percent of the collection to be photographed and transferred to 35 mm slides.
These resources have proven invaluable in Beloit College courses such as Costume History and Pattern Making, and are consulted on a regular basis by students and staff when creating historically accurate costumes for theater productions. In 2008, student Morgan Maul-Smith’09 curated an exhibition at the Wright Museum of Art entitled “The Fabric and Characters of Beloit College.” The exhibition juxtaposed historic dresses with their theatrical counterparts. Following the exhibition, 17 of these historic costumes were re-housed into archival boxes. The exhibit was successful in that it afforded both the public and college community an opportunity to view and learn about Beloit’s historic costume collection, many for the first time.
In order to better preserve and make the collection available to the student body, costume instructor Donna Thalman has been working with museum staff at the Wright Museum of Art to digitally photograph, inventory, and catalog the textiles. Honors term student Erin Levy’11 has begun the process of photographing and cataloging the costume collection, and student workers Leigh Simonson’11 and Lucy Lehman’14 have been re-packing, numbering, and cataloging the textiles. To properly house the garments, Thalman and the staff at the Wright Museum are currently working on a grant that would support re-housing the costumes in archival boxes. Eventually, the plan is to put some of the newly photographed textiles on the web where they can be made easily accessible to all.