Historic Costume Library offers a glimpse of fashion in the past


Donations helped start TCU’s Historic Costume Library in 1987 for fashion merchandising students to show how fashion has evolved, and where it is going in the future.

“People gave us things or people left them for our department, and pretty soon we started having 20 pieces, and I thought, ‘What are we going to do with this stuff?’ We got to have a costume collection,” Margaret McWhorter, the former assistant professor and 1987 department chair of fashion merchandising, said.

Now university students use the Historic Costume Library to learn about historical dress, construction design and inspiration for patterns.

"The fun part about studying history is that nothing is new under the sun,”Stephanie Bailey, an instructor for fashion merchandising, said. "It is interesting being able to see those cycles and have the two side by side."

Some of these differences included the unavailability of sewing machines and beads made only from glass and metal, Bailey said.

“All of you guys wearing your spandex and your jeans, you know they didn’t have that," Bailey said. "Well, they wore tight jeans in the 1950s. They were all cotton, so they would have been really really tight. You wouldn’t be able to move in them.”

Bailey used the term “Fast Fashion” to describe today’s fashion, citing popular clothing company Forever21 as an example.

To make them at a cheap price, the clothes have to be thrown together pretty fast, Bailey said.

The time period when someone feels the best about themselves, often when they are young and in shape, is the style a lot of people end up coming back to, Bailey said.

Economical, social, political and environmental factors also influence fashions that come back in style, Bailey said.

McWhorter agreed with Bailey.

“After the war in the 1970s, [fashion] was more dressy because they could do it. They had money to put it in the clothes,” McWhorter said.

The university's closet is organized by decade. There is a swimsuit from the 1900s, a fox stole, a hanger of clothes from the 1920s, and a big section from the 1970s, Bailey said.

McWhorter recalled the first item donated to the closet: a fancy, small lady’s hat.

Bailey pointed out the stitching on a top of a 1890s two-piece dress.

“That had to all been done by hand. So when you ask if it’s better, this is more detailed and fine work, obviously," Bailey said. "This is silk, and it’s just going to deteriorate.”

Junior fashion merchandising major Lauren Anders said she loves to work in the closet because she pictures her grandmother wearing some of the clothes.

“Oh, I could see her wearing this. I could see her wearing that,” Anders said.

Bailey also predicted what fashion might pop up in the future.

“Shoulder pads, I think eventually we will get there. Maybe not so extreme as the '80s, but I think it will go back that way,” Bailey said. “Back up to your natural waist line for your pants.”

Anders said she is helping organize the costume closet, so teachers can come through and use it in their classes. She said she hopes the historical costume library becomes more open to the public one day.

“I think that the history of clothing is something that we can learn a lot from and that people are interested in,” Anders said.

To donate historical fashion items to the closet, email Stephanie Bailey at[email protected].