CSA Angels grant awarded to the St. Kate's historical dress collection

This year, St. Catherine University’s Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising was awarded a grant from the Costume Society of America’s Angels Project. 

The Costume Society of America (CSA) is a national nonprofit organization founded in 1973 that focuses on historical fashion research and preservation, as well as driving the field of study forward. The Angels Project began in 2006, created to help serve smaller historical collections with fewer resources by connecting them with the expertise of the CSA. With the CSA National Symposium taking place in St. Paul, Jacqueline Parr, assistant professor of fashion merchandising, applied for the grant, as the St. Kate’s historical dress collection fit the Angels Project’s criteria.

Every year, the CSA National Symposium is held in a different host city, which determines the location of the collections eligible for the Angels Project. To be eligible, collections must be within a 45 minute drive of the symposium location, have a budget of $250,000 or less, employ 5 or fewer staff members, and propose a project related to maintaining the costume and textile collection. Applications are evaluated on the predicted level of impact on the collection, as well as the significance of the collection.

The St. Kate’s historical dress collection holds over 2,000 garments, with the oldest dating back to the 1850s. Professors utilize these pieces as educational tools for fashion courses, as students study their construction and evolution, while also occasionally using the garments as model pieces for illustration. Parr has been overseeing this completely donation-based collection for the past three years. 

Photo of garments
A highly-involved process

Margaret Ordoñez and Martha Winslow Grimm serve as co-coordinators of the CSA Angels Project, and St. Kate’s fashion department was honored to welcome them in late May, along with nearly 20 other volunteers from the CSA, ranging from graduate students to experienced conservators. 

“It benefits not only the local institutions we visit, but also the people who volunteer to be Angels,” said Ordoñez. “People who might not have met otherwise are able to share skills and knowledge, not just with the institution, but among themselves.” Volunteers coordinate donations from museum suppliers to help local institutions properly store their collections and connect with organizers at the collection to help plan exactly how to maximize their time. The last responsibility is vital, as the Angel volunteers only have one day to finalize the selected collection as much as they can. 

Each year, the Angels Project caters to the needs of the specific collection. For St. Kate’s, the four main priorities were creating high-quality hanger covers to protect the clothing, mechanically cleaning the garments and determining which were unsalvageable, photographing the final products, and documenting the pieces.

The highly-involved process requires a great deal of attention, expertise, and collaboration. 

Assistant professor of fashion design Carol Mager carefully traced and cut out the pattern for the hanger covers while the other volunteers sewed up the fabric. The professors and volunteers then took the garments out of the collection to begin the three-step process of cataloging. Due to the age and fragility of many garments, the historical pieces cannot be cleaned like other clothes. First, the volunteers began the vacuuming process by placing a screen between the hose and the garment to prevent tearing and to help suction dirt and dust off of the piece. The volunteers worked in pairs, with one handling the vacuum and the other maneuvering the garment and screen. After vacuuming, the volunteers took the garments to the photography station. Each piece was assigned a unique reference number, and this number appeared on a notecard in the photograph to help keep track of each garment. The final step is documentation, a highly analytical process that requires a deep knowledge and understanding of fashion history. Based on the garment’s appearance, construction, and any external knowledge included in the garment’s notes, Angel volunteers dated the garments within a few years of when they were made. The garment’s reference number is taken and paired with a detailed description of the piece for reference use. After documentation, the volunteers placed the garments back on hangers with newly made covers and sent them back to storage. 

YouTube video courtesy of Jackie Parr, assistant professor of fashion merchandising.

Preserved for the future

Faculty, CSA volunteers, and student volunteers spent nearly 12 consecutive hours on this exciting work, documenting and recording the processes with the intention of helping future workers in the collection. The energy felt in the building was shared by people from all over the country as they gathered at St. Kate’s to share their love of fashion. 

Thanks to the Angels Project, this work will continue into the future. The next step for the St. Kate’s historical dress collection is creating a new photo studio in Fontbonne, for the use of both fashion students and to continue photographing and documenting the collection.