Story by Bev Ohler
Photography by Lily Paz y Mino ’16
The box was flat but sturdy with the address neatly lettered on the top.
TO: Warren Wilson Jr. College — Swannanoa, North Carolina
I opened it carefully, not knowing what to expect to see inside its tissue paper shroud. It had been sent over to me at the Williams Building, which housed the church, the theater and every large gathering of the College community. I had gotten involved in the theater, soon after arriving to the campus, designing and making costumes and helping with productions set on that small stage in that wonderful old log structure. Elena Law, who was the college secretary and jack of all-necessary-trades-and-things-to-be-done, sent the box over to me from the administration building.
My surprised eyes opened wide at what I uncovered tucked carefully inside the tissue. The first thing I saw was a top hat—the kind that is shiny black, snaps down and folds flat. An-old-fashioned tuxedo was carefully folded with all its accompaniments–a bow tie, a white, starched and pleated-front shirt (with studs in a little box, just enough to fit every buttonhole), a pair of formal gray striped suspenders to loop over the buttons on the trousers, a vest in the same fabric as the suit–buttoned high with a collar. It was someone’s best formal bib and tucker!
Under this remarkable suit, carefully folded in another tissue, was a silk dress, the style from a former decade just as carefully preserved. It was ecru with a lace top and the tiniest white buttons enclosed the back. It looked to be long, an evening dress. On top of it was a pair of long, white kid gloves and an ecru lace fan. A little gold beaded purse was wrapped in separate tissue and in it was a delicate lace handkerchief.
“What could this be?” I wondered. ”Who could have sent this treasure to the college and for what purpose?” We are not a museum. Being involved with clothes I was aware of the worth of such vintage attire. I fondled the contents of the box carefully, offering each item the reverence it most surely deserved. Where shall I put this? Storage space in our multi-use dwelling was very scarce, and flying squirrels, who inhabited the building, were found to have nested in a few of the costume boxes we had! Elena must know more.
Indeed she did. Being a mission college in the south in those former days did not always project the way we really were. Often, we were sent clothing and sundries thought “necessities” by church groups in the north. It was called “The Mission Barrel.” Many of the things sent to the “poor” students were acceptable and useful, but many were not. Last decade’s fashion was not something that appealed to a 50’s or 60’s coed. It’s strange to think that wealthy Presbyterians in the North would have such an unrealistic idea of what a Presbyterian college in the South was like. There were times, however, when a warm winter coat, even from a former decade, was just what a student from Florida or Africa needed. And there were students who were grateful for an extra sweater or an appropriate suit. The thought that anything, no matter how old-fashioned, would be welcome might have been a holdover from our Farm School days, when most of our students were really very poor and desperately needed the clothes that were sent in the old mission barrel.
Elena said that this box that I received was far from the first like it. She said the “do-good” family of a deceased minister or elder and his wife usually sent the boxes. She wasn’t sure if they thought our students would wear these outfits or why they were sent to us, and she had many similar boxes like the one she sent me. She did not want to inundate me with all of them at once, but they came to the college pretty regularly. “Maybe they were just cleaning out their attics,” she said. “I thought you might have a use for them in the theater.”
It occurred to me then that these unusual gifts might be the beginning of a college costume collection that would prove valuable in period productions. Of course, our students then would never have wanted to wear these period clothes, but on the stage they might be wearing them if they played the part of Tony Kirby or Alice Sycamore in You Can’t Take it With You or Emily or Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town.
There were many, many boxes after that one and when I opened each one, the contents similar, but each a bit different; I did so with a feeling of awe and sadness. It was a bit like the feeling I have going to an estate sale–a reticent glimpse into someone’s life. This was the best outfit they owned, the one they loved wearing and wore on special occasions, one that probably cost more than any other. I would try to picture them wearing the grand attire, her gloved hand resting on his arm. They were all dressed up and ready, her hair in a perfect coiffure, ears perfumed and jeweled. She gives him a shy smile, knowing how pretty she looks. It’s a picture of another time. What could have been the event? A wedding perhaps, a banquet, a dance, a community event, a college honor, a retirement party?
Sometimes there was jewelry in the boxes, pieces we still have and use. There were antiquated eyeglasses, a tie clasp and/or cuff links, a bejeweled hair clip or comb, a very old broach or a pretty eyelet petticoat. I remember more than one dried, ribboned bouquet or corsage, so fragile, barely holding together.
One after another a dress suit got put on a hanger, hung and stored, adding to what is now an enormous collection. And then, I carefully wrapped, and tucked away one more vintage dress to find a safe place in the trunk. In earlier years we were able to use these clothes on the stage, but as the years passed and time left its mark on the fabric of the gowns, we were able to take patterns from them and remake the authentic styles in new material.
Our costume collection is now huge, but the most treasured pieces are those that arrived to us all those years ago through the mission barrel. I don’t care why these boxes were sent, they found a grateful home and have adorned so many plays, been worn by multitudes of student actors, who may have found the essence of their character by wearing clothes directly from the period in which that particular person would have lived.
It is January 30, 2014
Getting ready for a production of Pygmalion, we have been repairing the linings and seams of our collection of frock coats and cut-away formal men’s coats, most used many times and a bit worse for wear. We mend and patch and hope they will survive a little longer to add their authenticity to yet another period production.
“Oh my goodness, this was made in 1907!” Frances excitedly declared. She knew that because while mending she turned an interior pocket inside out and deep inside discovered a label, the letters clearly visible. It said:
REV C.C. HAYS — by Tailor WW MILLER –PITTSBURG.PA 1907
No wonder it needed so much repair. I knew these garments were old – but not THAT old! Belle thought, if we found one, there might be more. Her search found five more from Chicago, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Jersey City, and then when she went to the computer and looked up WILLIAM JERREMS’ SONS who made the coat for W.E. Henning in 1912 in Portland, Oregon, she found a postcard with the picture of the tailor shop, obviously in that early decade. The earliest one was made in 1906 for W. ROBINSON. The tailor was John J. McMULLEN–292 Grove Street, Jersey City, NJ–and for what reason unknown to us, this coat is in perfect condition. It looks as though it could have been sold today; the material inside and out looks new and is without a blemish.
About the writer
Beverly Ohler has been at Warren Wilson College longer than anyone. After eight years studying theatre design at the first school of the arts in the Northeast, leaving a position as illustrator and designer at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City, she came with her husband to Warren Wilson College. The work she did at Bergdorf’s is now housed in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the early years at WWC, she taught art, designed costumes and sets, taught costume design and helped build the theatre program. Bev was responsible for coordinating and directing sixteen one and two week long college festivals over three decades, each on a different theme. She was advisor for ten years of literary publications, The Montage, before officially joining the Theatre staff as designer and teacher. Today, Bev runs the costume shop, designing the costumes for Warren Wilson Theatre productions (about 160 to date), and with a college crew, builds every show, while maintaining the sizable collection. She teaches courses in design and costume history.