PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

The Costume Collection at Jacob's Pillow

Episode Summary

Dance costume historian Caroline Hamilton shares her experience of exploring and cataloging the costume collection at Jacob's Pillow. She frames this episode with a conversation and oral history that she undertook during her fellowship at the Pillow, with Director of Preservation Norton Owen.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and I’m greatly pleased to introduce Caroline Hamilton, one of our Research Fellows, who will be your host for this survey of the unique costume collections housed at Jacob’s Pillow, primarily documenting the work of two seminal groups: the Denishawn Company, and Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers.  

CAROLINE HAMILTON: My name is Caroline Hamilton and I am a dance and costume historian specializing in early twentieth-century dance. I grew up in Australia and knew about Jacob’s Pillow from a young age. It was a place I always wanted to visit and in 2017 I applied to be an intern in the archives. I was drawn by one thing in particular – a single sentence on the archive webpage which mentioned that among the extensive items housed in Blake’s Barn, the archives home, were over 30 traveling trunks filled with original costumes from the Denishawn and Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers companies. 

For the first half of my internship, I would periodically 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, from this I created a proposal for the collection. In January 2018 I returned to a very snowy Jacob’s Pillow and began a fellowship, the main objective of which was to rehouse and catalogue this mysterious collection and prepare some items for a summer exhibition at Williams College Museum of Art. 

This work was the next chapter in the long history of the collection. Shortly after I began my fellowship, I undertook an interview with Norton Owen, Director of Preservation, to better understand how this multi-layered collection came to Jacob’s Pillow.

I first asked Norton how these costumes initially came to be at Jacob’s Pillow and where they were stored. 

NORTON OWEN: The way Barton tells it in his book, Ted Shawn took some things which he was helping, Barton was helping Shawn bring back here to Jacob's Pillow. And Ruth St. Denis was retaining some things. But everything that they didn't want was, they made a huge bonfire. And, of course, they saw this as a kind of, I, I, I think what Barton explains was that the symbolism of this was not lost on any of them. That, in a sense, Denishawn was going up in flames. And, but the things that they had, that Barton and Shawn put aside to come to the Pillow, the trunks that they had, have been here now ever since. They've been in various different places on the grounds and of course, that's part of the story too, about where they've been kept, how they've been kept, but of course, the primary thing is that they have been kept. So, so the point is that we have all of these things that date back to the time when they were used, actively used, as costumes. They were stored with a purpose in mind, I, and that main purpose being for possible reuse. I certainly, all during the Denishawn period, one of the things that, that was quite common was reusing a costume or repurposing it in some other way. So, you know, I think the the fact that Shawn and Barton had decided that these things, that there was still life in these. I mean, they, they, I would say it's very unlikely that they would have been saving them for sentimental reasons or historical reasons. I think the purpose for saving them was with the idea that they could use them again in some way. But I will say that, you know, by the time I got here in 1976, they weren't really, you know, even though the purpose they'd been kept for was possible use in other danceworks, they were not really being used anymore at that time. And, and I think there were, the attitude about them from the people who knew that they existed was like, “wow, there's really cool stuff in these trunks,” but they were not secured in any way. So, you know, I can remember looking through them, you know, like, “oh, look at this great stuff.” You know, “who even knows that it’s here?”

CAROLINE HAMILTON: Over time, costumes from Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers company, 1933-1940, were added to the collection, with many of these being made at the Pillow. I asked Norton about the first time the costumes were displayed – this would be the first of over 100 exhibitions that Norton would curate at the Pillow.

NORTON OWEN: 1977, which was the first year that, first summer that I was on staff, 1976 I was a student, I started working for the pillow right after that. But in ‘77 I was working in the box office and we opened that season with the Joyce Trisler Dance Company doing a one, one performance of a program called The Spirit of Denishawn and it, it was a, they had worked with a Denishawn dancer named Klarna Pinska and she staged a number of different works for them. We showed it that one night. And, you know, for reasons now that are, that, well, I can only think of as being kind of built into my own interests that, that I knew, because we were doing this program of Denishawn works and that we were doing them here and that I knew that we had these costumes, I just had this, this feeling that more people needed to know this. That it was something that was exciting, that, that how, how would it be any different? I mean, this was a program, The Spirit of Denishawn, that was performed other places, they toured all around the country. Well, that's fine, great that they're making it seen other places, but here it was special. I mean, here it made, it had a real connection. But if you don't share that connection with people, if you don't make them aware of that connection, then it's just like any other place. So it seemed to me, the way you made that connection was like we had these costumes, we should show them. So, you know, nobody empowered me. I, I mean, I suppose I must have asked permission at some point along the way, but, but I just have this idea that what we should do was, would be to put some of them on display in the studio. And in those days, the audience was allowed into the Bakalar Studio at intermission. And we would have exhibits of John Lindquist and John Van Lund both who were` both still photographing here at that time, would put up some of their photos and they would usually make one display at the beginning of the summer that would be up for the entire summer. But I thought, well, as long as people are going in there that would be the place that we could set up some mannequins. So I borrowed some mannequins from the department store in Pittsfield, Pittsfield still had a department store then called England Brothers. I, what sticks in my mind is that I had three mannequins. I don't know really anymore if that's true or not. I'm looking for photographic evidence because I think I did take a photo or two of the, of the costumes. And I just chose some that I thought were interesting looking, I didn't know what any of them were from, and put them in the studio.

CAROLINE HAMILTON: In 1981 Norton got the idea to create an inventory of the trunks and costumes together with Jacob’s Pillow costume designer Charles Schoonmaker, also known as ‘Chip’.

NORTON OWEN: You know, there was quite a lot of just hard physical labor I would say at that time of lugging these trunks around. We had, we got them out of the, I guess many of them at that time were, well, they were divided between, some of them were in the trunk room, some of them were in the off-stage right loft area, which would happen to be right above the costume room. So, so anyway, what I recall is having them outside I think because we took Polaroid photos also. And you know, both, most of those, as you can see, and looking at the photos were taken outside. We laid some cloth down or something so that they would be protected. And I remember two other people who were involved, so it was Chip and myself and then also, I don't remember whether it was for the entire time or maybe just a portion of the time, but Jane Sherman, who was an original Denishawn dancer in 1981. So this must have been, it was at the tail end of the season in 1981, and Jane was here. Uh, gosh, this is a really good question. I’m trying to, so Vanaver Caravan was performing and they were doing a work called “Boston Fancy,” which was a Shawn work and had been staged for them by Jane Sherman. So I think she must have come up in 1981 and ‘82. At any rate, you know, so we may have done this in, in two phases as well. But I remember that, that Jane was involved because she was helping us identify certain things she just knew, first of all, but she had already written her book, “The Drama of Denishawn Dance” at that time, and there are a lot of photographs in that book. So it was great to have her on hand. And also Barton Mumaw was on hand at least for part of the time. Again in 1981, that last week of the season Vanaver Caravan was doing “Boston Fancy,” but it was also, the, the program was called American Sampler, I seem to recall. And, and Annabelle Gamson was doing some Isadora Duncan work on that program and, and Barton Mumaw was performing. Those were actually his final performances in 1981. So though, and, and don't want to leave out what Chip did was made sketches and we, what we documented was any kind of notes that were in the costumes figuring that that would help us, you know, making the inventory as we made the inventory. Oftentimes, we wouldn't know immediately exact, what something was so we would, you know, notate what we knew about it. You know, what the, describe the costumes, sketch them. Chip was making sketches as he went along. And then we would put, oftentimes it was initials that would be in the, you know, sometimes full names, but oftentimes, it would be initials. And those would help us figure out, “oh, I see, you know, from these initials, we know which dancers were involved,” and that helps us identify then we had Christina Schluntz’ chronology both of Denishawn and of the Men Dancers, and those say what the casts were, you know, it also has some photographs. So we're able to look at that and see “oh, okay, well, this was a dance for six men and their six costumes. And those initials in those costumes correspond to the ones in the chronology.” That's what, that, you know, so that helped us figure out what was what.

CAROLINE HAMILTON: Beginning in 1996, the trunks were moved in phases into the basement of Blake’s Barn which provided a more stable environment. In the early 2000s, a project began to line some of the trunks and wrap the contents in muslin and acid-free tissue. At around the same time, a smaller collection was donated to the Jacob’s Pillow Archives.

NORTON OWEN: In the early 2000s, and I do have some documentation here to attest to exactly when this was, we were contacted by Chuck Tomlinson, also known as Charles Tomlinson, who was the costume designer. And Chuck, knowing that we had costumes here and knowing that these costumes were not being well cared for at UCLA, suggested that maybe they should come here. How did they get to UCLA in the first place was St. Denis lived in Los Angeles really from the 1930s up until her death in ‘68. So that's where they were with her at some point, I think it was during her lifetime. I think they went, the the costumes were transferred to UCLA. There's documentation of this also. Because at one time, I can remember there was quite a bit of kerfuffle, they had these costumes, they were trying to figure out what to do with them. They were not a museum, they were a dance program. So they, at one point in time, had students wearing the costumes and had some kind of a costume parade or some kind of a, you know, they were, they were, and allowing them to be seen, you know, and I, you know, it's in our correspondence here. You know, when Shawn got word that this had been done he was outraged, you know, that, that students should be wearing these priceless costumes and, you know, so I don't think they ever did that again. But, but consequently, they really weren't put to any use. And so, I think Chuck, knowing that and knowing they had to do something with them, they, he didn't want to just see them get thrown out, or, you know, be shoved off into deeper storage where they might get forgotten. It was his thought that sending them to the pillow would be the thing to do. So they came here and many of those in those trunks are, we're saying Denis costumes, so a little different than, you know, different. They really have to be thought of differently than, than the other Denishawn costumes that we had here, because many of the ones that we had here before, that were numbers of things, you know, were like, core costumes and, you know, which of course are interesting in and of themself because those, you know, the, because they were, they were worn by dancers other than saying, Denis and Shawn. Some of those dancers were people like Louise Brooks, or Martha Graham or Charles Weidman, or Doris Humphrey. And those names are in them also. One of, as an aside, I, one of the things I remember when, when Martha Graham was here in 1984. You know, again, because we had already been through this trunks in ‘81 I knew that there were costumes that had her name in them, and, or things that even if they didn't have her name in them, they were from dances that she was in.  So she might know them and she would, might, you know, recognize them. So I pulled some things out and had them laid out. And I remember she came into the, we had, we had predetermined the time that this would happen. But there was a big, like, cutting room, you know, cutting table in the, in the costume room. And so I had laid out some of these costumes as well as some photographs and other things for her to come in and look at. And this was a big event. I, you know, I was very excited about having this mo, I had met her already, but this was, this was my moment, you know, to be able to show her these things and and get her reactions to things too. And, and I remember the way that she put, you know, handled some of these costumes. She was really very touched by, by the ability to come into contact with these things again,

CAROLINE HAMILTON: One of the highlights to be found in the trunks donated from UCLA was Ruth St. Denis’ costume from The Legend of the Peacock. Here Denishawn dancer Jane Sherman reads a section of Barton Mumaw’s autobiography, which she co-authored, recalling this costume.

JANE SHERMAN: Miss Ruth once succinctly revealed to me the importance of a tried and trusted costume no matter what its age or condition. At a rehearsal of her Legend of the Peacock, I happened to look closely at the long glittering train that represented the bird’s tail. It was so bedraggled and filthy that I blurted aloud, “why in heaven's name doesn't she have that cleaned?” Without missing a peacock strut, she answered in a penetrating tone, “because, Dear, in heaven's name, it would fall apart.”

CAROLINE HAMILTON: By 2018, the Jacob’s Pillow collection now contained three distinct sections; costumes owned and worn by Ruth St. Denis, costumes from the Denishawn company, and costumes from Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. Norton ended our talk by introducing the 2018 cataloging project.

NORTON OWEN: But I will just say in closing, now that Caroline Hamilton is here and is doing a really terrific job in cataloging these things, authenticating them, restoring them in some cases, safeguarding them, rehousing them, you know, we will be clearly jumping to another level in the way we're dealing with these costumes. So, you know, and I hope all of this will be of course of use someday to researchers and that, you know, we will continue to uncover more information about them. 

CAROLINE HAMILTON: Beginning in early 2018 I opened each of the 33 trunks – I was amazed at how bright and colorful the contents had remained despite some things being packed away for over half a century. I found terry cloth robes worn by the men dancers, shoes, fans, and masks bought on tour, elaborate headdresses decorated with kingfisher feathers, a 1920s make-up box, and dozens of colorful nautch skirts. 

Over the course of 7 months, I cataloged over 2,500 costume and prop items and used over 4,500 yards of acid-free tissue and 115 new acid-free boxes. The earliest costume I unpacked was Ruth St. Denis’ Cobras costume from 1906 as well as costumes from at least 37 different identifiable works. All of the catalog records and quite a few photos of the costumes can be found on the Archives website – archives.jacobspillow.org

83 of the costume items, consisting of 30 costume ensembles and eight headdresses, were featured in the Williams College Museum of Art 2018 summer exhibition Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob’s Pillow 1906-1940. This was the first time in decades that many of these items had been seen and certainly the first time they were shown all together in a museum setting. 

In the summer of 2019, some of the material was revisited and recontextualized in the exhibition Dance We Must: Another Look mounted in Blake’s Barn at Jacob’s Pillow. And, of course, now that the collection has been fully cataloged, more access to these treasures will be possible in the future.

It has been an incredibly exciting journey for me to help bring these costumes out into the light after so many years. So much history is embedded, quite literally in some cases, in them, and there’s so much we can learn through looking at how they were made, as well as how they were worn. 

[Music begins, composed, and performed by Jess Meeker] 

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob’s Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course, through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon - either online or onsite.