within the walls of Mount Mary University is a collection unlike any
other in the state — one filled with couture garments, designer
illustrations and fashionable artifacts. Known formally as the
Historic Costume Collection, it boasts nearly 10,000 items, with
garments dating back to the late 1800s. Each piece is carefully
preserved and stored on campus in one of two climate- and
beginnings coincide with the inception of the university’s fashion
department, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Together
with a team of local fashion aficionados (think retailers,
manufacturers and editors), Sister Aloyse Hessburg founded Mount Mary
University’s full-time, four-year fashion program in 1965. Hessburg
was named program director, and her primary job duty — developing
the program’s curriculum — required frequent trips to New York
City. The opportunity led her to meet Charles John Kleibacker, an
American fashion designer known for his complex gown designs.
pair formed a quick friendship, and it was Kleibacker who encouraged
Hessburg to begin a historic costume collection. "At that point,
in the 1960s, they started collecting items of contemporary interest
as well as historic interest," explains Barbara Armstrong, dean
of the Mount Mary University School of Arts and Design and the School
of Business. "From there, it’s been the generosity of a number
of people and the support of a number of important donors throughout
the community who’ve recognized their garments are of designer or
historical significance." Kleibacker himself was a significant
donor, giving more than 50 pieces from his personal collection to the
university when he died in 2010.
originated as a rather informal endeavor — accepting nearly every
garment donation — has evolved into a much more formal process. Each
submitted piece is now thoroughly reviewed and assessed by the
department before it’s accepted into the collection. "We want
to make sure the additions we make in the future are filling gaps we
might have — gaps in design or technique or if they’re of
significant historic value, " says Armstrong.
vetting process is also a means of managing the collection’s sheer
size, which currently tests its space limitations. "We are now in
a situation of abundance," Armstrong explains. "We’ve
maxed out on what we can actually store." The department is now
turning its focus to editing the existing collection, removing
duplicates and otherwise unnecessary items and sending them to
whose titles include assistant professor, fashion department co-chair
and Fashion Boot Camp co-director, says the collection has proven to
be a valuable teaching tool. "The beauty of having this
collection is that it’s not just on a screen," she says.
"We can view the pieces and learn from them hands-on." As
the university’s costume history class professor, Eichhorn often
uses garments from the collection to explain construction and
tailoring techniques of the past. "When we feel there’s a need
for an educational resource for our students, a garment they can learn
from, we have made the decision to purchase garments for our
collection to enhance it and to diversify it," she says.
Armstrong, the collection’s educational value extends beyond the
fashion classroom, and students studying subjects like sociology or
anthropology may also benefit from the story it tells. "Our
collection really chronicles the lives of women," says Armstrong.
"Contemporary fashion is really a vision of culture. Like in the
Victorian era, for example — when women’s lives were restricted,
so were their hemlines."
university hopes to eventually share this value with others. It
purchased PastPerfect, a software used by museums to catalog their
collections, last summer as its initial step toward doing so.
"That database will allow us, in the future, to share our
collection digitally," explains Armstrong. "That’s one of
our goals — where scholars or other institutions or individuals who
may be interested in a technique someone was famous for can use the
garment to learn from."
In the meantime,
the department continues to partner with local and regional museums,
most recently lending 13 outfits to the Milwaukee Art Museum for its
"Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair" exhibit.
Loaning items from the collection is just as regulated as the
acquisition process. "It’s a transaction that is very
formal," says Armstrong. "We don’t let the garments just
walk out the door. They’re heavily insured and need to be handled
really proud of it (the collection), and it’s a great differentiator
for our program," she continues. "I don’t believe there
are any other collections in Wisconsin or in the region that come
close to what we have. It’s a great resource for our students —
they simply aren’t going to get this elsewhere."