The origin of the Jacob’s Pillow Costume Collection falls into two categories; those costumes kept by Ted Shawn and those kept by Ruth St. Denis.
In 1932 after the Denishawn Company had finally disbanded the costumes, props and sets were divided between Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis. Each dancer kept items which were particularly special to them or that they thought may perhaps use again. After the division was complete it was decided that the rest should be burned ‘with a cleansing fire’. Barton Mumaw recalled the scene in his autobiography:
‘The thirty-foot-high flats representing Babylonian god from Ishtar of the Seven Gates, the Hopi adobe house from The Feather of the Dawn, The Spirit of the Sea rock and fishing net and green-blue backdrop, The Cuadro Flamenco baskets of flowers, Job’s altar made of cartons, Animal silhouettes from Angkor Vat … armloads of shoes and wigs, of scarves and garlands, of leotards and gauzy nautch skirts, of Egyptian masks and Viennese ball dresses.’
The costumes and props that Shawn kept from the fire were brought back to Jacob’s Pillow and form the nucleus of the current collection. Over time the costumes from The Men Dancers Company were added to this. Around the year 2000 five additional trunks of costumes which had belong to St. Denis were donated to Jacob’s Pillow from the Dance department at UCLA .
When I made an assessment of the collection in August 2017 I had only a very vague idea of what might be in the trunks. An overview written in 1999 stated that the collection contained 18 trunks relating to Denishawn and Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers. Including costumes from: Xochitl, Feather of the Dawn, Cuadro Flamenco and The Siamese Ballet – by Denishawn Dancers – worn by Ruth St Denis, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Louise Brooks. As well as costumes from Kinetic Molpai, Dance of the Ages and Olympiad – worn by the Men Dancers. An inventory of these trunks had been undertaken in 1981 by Norton Owen with the assistance of dancers Barton Mumaw and Jane Sherman. A series of Polaroids and sketches taken at this time would prove an invaluable resource.
The UCLA collection was described in 1999 as including pieces relating to works such as Radha, The Cobras, and Incense. Also Green Nautch, Black and Gold Sari, Legend of the Peacock, Kuan Yin, and O-Mika.
Arriving in January 2018 I realised there were in fact 27 trunks in the main storage area (a climate controlled space under Blake’s Barn at Jacob’s Pillow), plus an additional 9 stored in other areas, making the total 36. Not all of these contained costume, some were full of props, hats, shoes or backcloths, but the majority were full of costumes.
I began opening each of these trunks, carefully taking out the contents, matching items and researching the contents before cataloguing and adding a unique identifier to each item. Each item was catalogued using Collective Access, recording the colours, fabrics, decoration, provenance, any names inside and the designer or maker if known. After labelling each piece was then wrapped in acid free tissue and rehoused in acid free boxes.
The trunks revealed an incredible time capsule full of costumes, headdress, shoes, props and accessories from both the Denishawn and The Men Dancer Companies. The trunks not only housed individual costumes but complete sets. This collection is an incredible resource and in some cases provides the only physical evidence into productions where no other information survives.
It became obvious early on that the collection was far larger then I had estimated. Having at first estimated around 850 items I have to date catalogued nearly 2500 items (and I’m not done yet!)
You can now see the records for the Jacob’s Pillow Costume Collection on Collective Access. Over time photographs will be added to these records. I hope that this will become a great resource for students and scholars. The items will also be available to view by appointment.
The costumes, now housed in over 100 new acid free boxes, are now on new shelving in Blake’s Barn basement.