Archiving Historic Costumes

Historic CostumesTucked away inside the costume shop of Pomona’s Seaver Theatre is a collection of more than 150 historic garments—mostly women’s clothing dating from the 1920s to the 1950s. They’ve been used over the years, and many have grown delicate with age.

That caught the attention of Michael Mao ’19, a history major and theatre minor with an interest in costume design. With Theatre Professor Sherry Linnell serving as his advisor, Mao decided to combine his fields of study with a research project that encompassed two summers, culminating in the creation of a digital archive of the garments.

Mao spent much of the first summer of his project, in 2017, researching the background of the garments and comparing them to historical catalogs and books about typical women’s fashion of the times. He also noted, whenever possible, important details such as style, fabric, construction and trim.

The next step was photography of the garments. Linnell wanted Mao to consider them as three-dimensional objects, much like sculptures. This posed a challenge for Mao, who enlisted the help of Instructional Technologist Jason Smith.

Smith helped him acquire the necessary equipment—a manual camera with a timer, kit light reflectors and lightboxes—and together they assembled a pop-up studio with white and black backdrops against which to photograph the clothing.

Each garment was photographed from the front, back and sides in quarter turns, with additional photographs for interesting details or trims. After taking the photos, Smith spent time editing them to ensure their visual quality.

The digital image database will serve as a lasting resource for theatre and dance students to continue to engage with these historic garments, even though many of them have grown too delicate to pull out in person.

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