Clothes can tell stories—about the people who wore them, the time period when they were popular, and the artists and craftsmen who designed and constructed them.
The Lois Jett Historical Costume Collection at Illinois State is home to more than 2,000 dresses, hats, jackets, vests and other garments, some with documented back stories, others with blank histories. Students have been learning from the collection since Jett, a former apparel merchandising and design faculty member, started it in 1962 (then with just three garments) to complement her fashion history courses.
Now, the impressive collection, tucked away in two rooms in Turner Hall, is looking to break out, said Jennifer Banning, the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences professor who oversees the collection.
“We have a mile-long list of things we want to do with the collection,” Banning said. “I don’t want to keep it just to ourselves … We really want to get our name out there.”
Jett created the teaching collection out of necessity, before Project Runway, Pinterest, or even fashion history textbooks. Jett’s students needed to see different apparel construction methods, even fiber types, up-close.
“In those days, you couldn’t Google Image search everything,” Banning said.
But today, with so many garments in hand, Banning’s No. 1 priority on the to-do list is getting more people to see the collection. There is very limited display space – a few glass cases in Turner – so the goal is to find a permanent exhibition area in the next five to 10 years, moving from a collection to a museum, Banning said.
In the meantime, students continue diving into the collection to explore how and why clothing changed over time, and how to properly care for and catalog historic garments. Everyone inside wears white gloves.
The collection is also used for special projects, internships and research. Merchandising major Katie Mueller, for example, used part of her three-hour independent study to create a display case titled, “If clothes could talk, what story would they tell?” One of the four pieces is a Girl Scout dress and hat from 1957, with a historical information placard and photo from the era.
Students can also help with another monumental task – organizing the collection. Right now, only about one-third of the garments, the oldest dating back to the 1870s, are featured in an electronic database (with photos). Adding each new garment is a “very time-consuming process,” Banning says, but a worthwhile one; if the database could move online, the collection could bring in more visitors, on top of the researchers and student groups who already know about it.
“This is the only collection of its kind (in Illinois) dedicated solely to clothing that I know of outside Chicago,” Banning said.
The collection is still growing. Right now, Banning says their wish list includes any garments with a documented Illinois State connection, and donations from modern designers from places like New York, especially if they’re a good example of high quality design and construction for apparel design students.
They’d also like to add some pieces from the 18th century, via auction houses, though that obviously costs money, Banning said. (The collection will prove its fundraising ability next spring, when students from the Apparel, Merchandising and Design Association, or AMDA, plan to display Jett garments as part of a fundraiser for a scholarship named for late FCS professor Tricia Widner Johnson.)
“I think we all have a prize here at ISU,” Banning said.
For more information about the collection, including how to make garment donations, contact Banning at (309) 438-5960 or email@example.com. To make a financial contribution to support the collection, make checks payable to “ISU Foundation: Lois Jett Historic Costume Collection,” and mail to Cathy Bess, Administrative Clerk, Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, Campus Box 5060, Illinois State University, Normal, IL 61790-5060.
Ryan Denham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.