Cataloguing the Jacob’s Pillow costume collection

In 2018 I undertook a Research Fellowship in the archives of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Massachusetts. My project was to catalogue and rehouse the extensive Jacob’s Pillow costume collection, still in the original travelling trunks.

The History of the Collection

The origin of the 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 items ‘sacrificed’ 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 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 .

The Cataloguing Project

In 2017 I undertook an internship in the archives at Jacob’s Pillow. I had known before I arrived that the archives contained over 30 travelling trunks filled with original costumes from The Denishawn and Men Dancers companies. I would often go down to the basement and look at these trunks wondering what treasures lay within. Eventually I was permitted to open one and conducted a brief spot check of the contents and created a proposal for the collection.

You can hear about the process and history of the collection here.

When I made this assessment of the collection in August 2017 I only had the vaguest 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 (now Director of Preservation) with the assistance of  former Men Dancer Barton Mumaw and Denishawn dancer Jane Sherman. A series of Polaroids and sketches taken at this time would prove an invaluable resource in my research.

The 1981 Inventory and Polaroids. Copyright Jacob’s Pillow.

The UCLA collection was described in 1999 as including pieces relating to Ruth St. Denis’ works such as Radha, The Cobras, and Incense. Also Green Nautch, Black and Gold Sari, Legend of the Peacock, Kuan Yin, and O-Mika.

I began my fellowship in January 2018, the main objective of which was to rehouse and catalogue this mysterious collection and prepare a selection of items for a summer exhibition at Williams College Museum of Art.

Soon after I arrived I realised there were in fact 27 trunks in the main storage area (a temperature 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. I used photographs, books, printed programmes, and archival footage to assist in identifying the items. Cast list were also very helpful in matching the names inside the items to various roles and seasons.

The trunks not only housed individual costumes but complete sets. These collections are an incredible resource and in some cases provides the only physical evidence into productions where no other information survives.

A complete set of costumes and accessories from Xochitl, choreographed in 1921. Very few photographs exist from this work making these incredible resources. These items have been paired ready for labelling. Copyright Jacob’s Pillow.

Each item was catalogued using Collective Access where the colours, fabrics, decoration, provenance, any names inside, and the designer or maker if known, were recorded. I endeavoured to maintain the original order of each trunk as best I could. After labelling each piece was then wrapped in acid free tissue and rehoused in acid free boxes.

Costume Box 001. Copyright Jacob’s Pillow.

It became obvious early on that the collection was far larger than I had estimated. Having at first estimated around 850 items I actually catalogued over 2500 items over 7 months. 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 costume items, now housed in over 100 new acid free boxes and are now on new  shelving in Blake’s Barn basement.

First box May 2018
Costume Box 001 going onto the new shelving.
Copyright Jacob’s Pillow.

A selections of the costumes were featured in the exhibitions Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob’s Pillow 1906-1904 at Williams College Museum of Art (July-October 2018) and Dance We Must: Another Look at Jacob’s Pillow (June – September 2019). I will write about the process of preparing these historic costumes for display in a separate blog post.

Thank-you for reading!

Please note that as well as being a Travelling Historian I am also a Dyslexic one. I have a wonderful editor and lots of software to help me but sometimes spelling and typing errors do get through.