UVA’s Collection of Historic Dress Comes to Life

Historic Dresses on a mannequin

Historic Dress Collection

Deep in the bowels of the University of Virginia’s drama department dwell the ghosts of bygone eras.

They linger in the wool of a man’s overcoat, the silk of an Edwardian gown, the cotton of a slave’s dress – each with a story to tell.

Drama Professor Gweneth West cultivates those stories as curator of UVA’s Collection of Historic Dress. Amid towering stacks of props, West extracts sheet-encased racks of iconic clothing from as early as the 1790s and as recently as the 1970s.

“Mounted on mannequins, these garments have so much personality. It’s very haunting,” West said. “You think about what clothes mean to us today, why we choose them and how we think about the impression we will make. Fashion is so much about who we are and who we dream to be. This collection gives us a glimpse into other peoples and other times through the fashions they wore and preserved for posterity.”

The collection’s 10,000-plus items primarily come from donations and estate sales. Former professor Lois Garren began the collection in the 1970s, realizing that some donated garments, too fragile for the stage, were valuable for study tools.

Today, students use the collection to pattern period costumes and research textiles, fashions and cultures. Each January Term, West teaches a course, available to all undergraduates, that showcases the collection, “The Fine Art of Dress: Conformity and Individuality.” She continues to grow the collection and seek new tools to preserve its aging garments.

Some garments are remarkable for their extraordinary finery, others for their unique insight into ordinary lives. Each offers students a slice of history that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.