Arts & Culture / Mosaic / November 13, 2013

Independent study focuses on costumes, culture

Senior Hannah Compton talks about the elaborate way to fasten an 1860s bodice as part of her independent study. (Michelle Orr/TKS)

Senior Hannah Compton talks about the elaborate way to fasten an 1860s bodice as part of her independent study. (Michelle Orr/TKS)

Senior Hannah Compton handles the Knox vintage costume collection with great care. She wears gloves to keep the oil on her fingers from staining the cloth and places a sheet of muslin between the garment and any surface it may touch. She nestles each item within acid-free boxes, filling them to capacity.

These garments are fragile — some of them date as far back as the early 1840s. Compton has developed an independent study project that aims to catalog and preserve the vintage garments and researches the various trends and construction methods of 1880s attire.

Part of Compton’s independent study involves continuing the work of a former Knox student who began cataloging and storing the costumes when Compton was a freshman. She worked as a post-baccalaureate fellow in hopes of finishing.

“She did everything. There was no system before Alison Smith; she diligently went through everything, made sparse notes, packed many clothes in acid-free boxes so they could be stored properly,” Compton said.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough acid-free boxes to hold all of the clothes currently in storage. Many garments have been packed together in giant plastic tubs. Some of the material has started to disintegrate, the whites yellowing with age.

Compton applied for a Richter Grant in order to buy more boxes and may apply to be a post-baccalaureate fellow to continue the project.

Compton’s independent study was inspired by a trip to London, where she saw the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “astounding collection” of historical garments. She learned about the different elements of working in a historical museum, including the process for selecting display pieces and procuring material donations.

Compton’s focus is on the 1880s, which boasted large bustle skirts, something she greatly admires. She is both fascinated and repelled by the decade’s fashion, and enjoys the complexity that goes into the clothing’s construction.

“There was so much draping and all the lines had a purpose,” she said of the costumes, which were designed to emphasize the most desirable traits of a woman’s body. “Everything had to fit perfectly because the bodices were so tight, and the skirts were so voluminous.”

On the other hand, she said, such outfits boasted clashing color combinations.

“I like investigating things I don’t like,” said Compton, who doesn’t care for the slimmer, peacock-shaped variations of the decade’s dresses.

In addition to cataloging for the sake of storage, Compton is designing an installation that will feature select pieces from the vintage collection in the hopes of providing information that allows the viewer to mark the progression and influence of various styles. This will likely be placed around Harbach Theatre next term.

Compton and other costume shop members have been able to authenticate garments by analyzing their different elements, comparing certain styles relevant to a certain period of time in order to place a costume’s date of creation.

Compton continues to explore different aspects of theatre design, including working with stage make-up and creating masks.

While she and Smith have cataloged most of Knox’s costume collection, the college continues to receive more costume donations that still need to be introduced into the system. Compton plans to continue the project next term.

“I want to make it perfect, even though it never will be,” she said. “We could spend years going through every item of clothing.”

Veronica Gockenbach

Tags:  acid authentic bustle skirts compton decade fashion Harbach independent study study vintage

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