MTSU Houses Historic Garments

When Dr. Teresa Robinson, professor of textiles, merchandising and design program at MTSU, took her students for a study tour of the Historic Fashion Collection at the Fashion Institute of Design in New York in fall 1989, she “drooled” over the garments she saw there. She also began to wonder why there was nothing like it in Middle Tennessee. And so began the 19-year search and accessioning of historic pieces to put in MTSU’s burgeoning collection, which currently has about 700 pieces dating from circa 1840 to 1980.

Located in MTSU’s Human Sciences Building, the collection is “working,” meaning it is not a museum and it is not housed in environmental controls?and it can be handled.

“Some of the items can be worn and some of them can’t,” Robinson said. “That’s a judgment call we have to make depending on the stability and the structure of the garment . . . In a museum, you could never do that. Never, ever, ever.”

The collection is open for the use of students, the public, displays and exhibits, but all who handle the garments must wear 100 percent cotton gloves when handling the fabrics. Still, some garments wear out, such as silk, which disintegrates into small fibers.

“There is some degree of nonpermanency in that they’re not going to last forever,” Robinson pointed out, adding she is on a quest to find a wedding dress from each decade.

The collection currently has more women’s clothing and accessories?including daywear, sleepwear, hats, purses and shoes?than anything else, she said, because men and children tend to “wear out their garments’ usefulness.” The collection does, however, receive many christening gowns for infants as well as military uniforms.

Most of the garments in the collection are dated. Robinson said one of MTSU’s McNair Scholars recently spent two years researching all of the pieces that didn’t have circa dates. However, there are also ways to tell approximately when a garment is from, explained Robinson, who added that one can easily identify dresses from the turn of the century because they are mainly white or ivory and have a lot of embroidery. She also looks at whether a garment was hand-stitched or sewn on a machine.

“It’s a learning challenge to have to do the research when you don’t know much about a garment,” Robinson admitted. “You start to learn what characteristics to look for. Once you’re knowledgeable about the time period, it becomes pretty easy to start to date them.”

A class recently discovered a wedding bodice from 1891 that nobody could fit into.

Robinson’s daughter, who was 4 at the time, was still too big to fit into the 19-inch waist of the garment.

“Admittedly, the bride was probably 15, 16 or 17 years old,” Robinson said. “But still. It makes for an interesting study of the people who wore these clothes.”

The collection contains some significant pieces as well, including a garment that was worn at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball, as well as a dress that belonged to Jack Daniel’s sister.

“We’re not really looking for high-profile pieces, though,” Robinson said. “We really just want really good pieces that are representative of a particular time period.”

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