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The Lois Jett Historic Costume Collection (LJHCC) in the department of Family and Consumer Sciences recently received one of its largest donations to date: a collection of items from the Naomi Whiting Towner Estate.

Towner was a nationally known fiber artist and longtime professor at Illinois State University, where she taught for over 25 years. She was one of the last textile and fiber arts professors in the School of Art before the program was dismantled.

Dr. Jennifer Banning is the collection’s current director and faculty member in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. She recognized the valuable role that Towner played in her time spent teaching at ISU.

“When she retired, the textile and fabrics program went away. Textile art in the art department has a lot of connection but is different than what we do in fashion. She was also one of the first female faculty members in her department; I think she was a force to be reckoned with,” Banning said.

The donation includes an expansive inventory of 27 textile-related books, 10 periodicals, and 75 textiles that represent various cultures around the world.

The unique books and periodicals will be added to the collection’s library for students to access as a resource. Textile pieces come from a range of places around the world like Africa, Ghana, China, Guatemala, India, South America, and many more listed in the inventory count. Some of the oldest textile pieces date back to 700 A.D. and come from Peru.

Banning plans to use the donated items as exemplary pieces, providing students with an opportunity to view 1,000-year-old textiles and see the different representations of civilization and technology over time.

“To have these as something that students can still continue to see and learn from is amazing. It will enhance the learning of our students so much,” she said.

The Towner Estate donation is one of the largest intakes that the LJHCC has received in recent years. “While the LJHCC has excellent examples of dress from the United States dating back to the mid-19th Century, items of dress from other locations around the world were limited until a 2016 donation of world textiles from another prominent textile scholar. The Towner Estate items continue to widen the global scope of the LJHCC,” said Banning.

She hopes that the items in this collection will help students be able to examine items of dress and textiles with a more in-depth view, seeing fashion as a means of communication.

“I feel like seeing actual items from another culture or part of the world gives us a connection to humanity, helps us not to be so polarized, it breaks down barriers that other things can’t,” she said.

The LJHCC was originally created in 1962 by Lois Jett, a professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. The collection today has grown to include over 2,000 items of dress and related artifacts from around the world. Items in the collection are stored in a climate-controlled space within CAST’s Tuner Hall. Collection artifacts include clothing, footwear, jewelry, handbags, textiles, and a library of unique books—all used to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities.

In the future, Banning envisions a loan system that would allow instructors in departments and colleges across the university to borrow the collection’s artifacts for class use. She has worked to develop a framework that students can use when examining artifacts, so that an individual without a background in fashion or textiles can analyze items.

“This hands-on teaching collection is just one of the things that makes our fashion program so great. To have so many things to show students, and to be able to make those connections, I just think that is the most exciting thing for Illinois State,” she said.

Want to learn more?

The gallery at the LJHCC is not currently open for normal visiting hours due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, those interested in learning more may contact Jennifer Banning for information on scheduling a visit, donations, or questions on the collection.

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