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Middlebury Visiting Assistant Professor and Costume Director Mira Veikley holds up a vintage leopard coat from the College's antique costume collection in Wright Memorial Theatre.

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Grant Helps Conserve College’s Large Antique Costume Collection

June 8, 2017

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – At the end of a long basement room in Wright Memorial Theatre, Mira Veikley reaches into a costume rack and pulls out a jacket. “This is actual leopard,” she says with notes of awe and distaste in her voice. The timeworn garment, most likely from the 1930s, lives among a large rack of vintage furs, which, in turn, represent a fraction of the College’s large antique costume collection.

The fact that Veikley, a visiting assistant professor of theatre and the College’s costume director, could actually find and retrieve the leopard fur is testament to her yearlong effort at conserving a treasure that was hidden in plain sight. When she arrived at Middlebury, the collection was crammed into a small closet–safe from water damage, but essentially unusable.

Veikley saw potential for an outstanding teaching and research collection, so she applied for a College and University Collection Care Grant grant from the Costume Society of America. The 2016-17 grant provided funds for hangers, racks, storage containers, acid-free paper, and air quality management. In other words, it funded all the necessary supplies to properly store and display the fragile garments.

“What we’ve been trying to do is separate the collection,” said Veikley. “Everything has been sort of mixed together and what we’re doing now is sorting through and saying, ‘Okay, these things are too nice to be used on stage–too old, too fragile, too valuable’–so they’re being separated into a collection that’s just for research.” Veikley, who studied fiber science and apparel design at Cornell, will use the collection with her students next spring when she teaches the History of Western Dress.

Veikley, along with Associate Costume Director Annie Ulrich and Theatre Department staff and students, began sifting through the several hundred costumes, most of which were donated over many years. They set up a makeshift photo studio in the basement and brought in dehumidifiers. Eventually, the collection began to feel more organized with a sense of purpose.

In a sunlit classroom upstairs, Veikley has arranged some of the newly accessible costumes on dress forms for students to draw. She says drawing is essential to understanding the history and construction of a garment. “When you draw, something happens in your brain where you pay more attention. I tell them, ‘draw it to know it.’”

Studying the costumes, students pick out details they might not have seen otherwise–a trim, a shape, a clasp, unusual stitching. Veikley shows them a 19th century bustle, which looks like a small wooden cage, an instructive reminder that some of the beautiful period fashions they know from film, theatre, and museums, are only possible with a complex–and most likely unpleasant–structure beneath.

“The number one thing when you’re designing period clothing is understanding what they’re wearing underneath,” says Veikley. “A corset, for example, is different in every time period, changing as ideals of beauty and body type changed. Having students see the corset construction that creates the look is invaluable.”

Danielle Weindling, an art history major who graduated this spring, was an important partner in the costume conservation effort. As a student, her independent research, supported by the College's Undergraduate Collaborative Research Fund, focused on the history of western dress in the context of art history. After an internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s costume and textile department, Weindling brought her newly acquired expertise back to Middlebury where she went to work researching, sorting, and conserving costumes. Now she hopes her efforts will open the collection to a much broader Middlebury audience.

“There’s absolutely no reason why a corset or a dress from 1885 couldn’t be used in a gender studies course to talk about women and body politics,” says Weindling. “That tangible experience is what makes art and theatre come to life!”