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An Introduction of Sorts

 

This video explains what I am doing with the Mission Play costume collection and why it’s important.

 

Beginning the Journey

July 26, 2016 | by Alexis M. Hill

Collection Racks

My adventure into the Mission Play costume collection begins with research, lots of research. I investigated textile preservation, the history of the Mission Play, and of course the costumes themselves.

Collection Closeup

First things first, the costumes need to be “resting peacefully,” (a phrase used by Catherine McLean the head of Textile Conservation at LACMA to define the optimum environment for the clothes). In this case, that meant safe from light and pest damage. To combat this, I created a cover for the racks that some of the garments had been placed on. I constructed the cover with Tyvek from Home Depot—it’s surprisingly archival!

Corset closeup 2

Next, I began cleaning and examining the costumes. Using clean, careful hands, I note the condition of the garment with photos and a condition report. Then I carefully vacuum the piece on a low power setting and partially covered nozzle and take after treatment photos. So far the vacuuming has worked wonders, as most of the clothes are just extremely dusty. So far no pests (fingers crossed!).

Corset Closeup

One of the final, and admittedly more difficult, steps has been character identification.

The first piece I began investigating was a cotton corset with boning. After examining photos from various Mission play programs and research material I realized that very few female characters have cinched-waist silhouettes.

Corset

From the photos, it seems that the corset was likely used as an undergarment rather than a showpiece.

1924 charcter played by Katherine Snyder in Mission Play Quartette

1924 character played by Katherine Snyder in Mission Play.

I’ll continue to try to pinpoint a more specific character for our archives. In the meantime, stay tuned as I continue to uncover the mystery that is the Mission Play costume collection!

 

El Sombrero Blanco Skirt

August 10, 2016 | by Alexis M. Hill

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This week I stumbled upon this beautiful skirt. I believed that it was Spanish inspired, possibly for one of the dancers in the Mission Play.

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I was surprised by its excellent condition. All of the lace was sewn to the skirt by hand and all of the seam allowances were finished by hand also. This was the first clue in determining how old the garment was. I figured that if the garment were from the Mission Play revival in the 1940s-1950s, the seam allowances would have been finished by machine.

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Hand-sewn seam allowances

While looking in a California Life publication from 1919, I stumbled upon several photos of the El Sombrero Blanco dancers from The Mission Play.

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The skirt was clearly pictured and I was even able to see matching details and trims!

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Now that I know that one piece in the collection is from 1919, this gives me hope that I will continue to uncover garments from the early run of The Mission Play.

 

 

Native American Swastika Skirt

August 18, 2016 | by Alexis M. Hill

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Today I came across a skirt for a female Native American character. The skirt was a woven wool fabric with blue swastikas appliquéd by hand along the hem.

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The skirt had a fair amount of repairs, and indication that the skirt was reused for multiple shows. In terms of its age, the swastikas were a huge clue.

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The word swastika originates from Sanskrit term Devanāgarī: स्वास्तिक, being transliterated into svastika.

Sankrit swastika

It means any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote auspiciousness, or any piece of luck or well-being. It is composed of su-meaning “good, well” and asti “it is”, which form the word svasti, meaning good health or good fortune; the added suffix ka forms an abstract noun, and svastika might thus be translated literally as “that which is associated with well-being,” corresponding to “lucky charm” or “thing that is auspicious.” (taken from “svasti meaning”. www.sanskritdictionary.com.)

Nazi swastika

After Hitler’s designated the use of a version of the symbol (newly tilted) for the Nazi Party in 1920, and during his subsequent reign, the swastika became a stigmatized symbol of hate in the 1930s. This means that its use on the skirt suggests a pre-1930s origin.

Advertisement from California Life, 1919

Advertisement from California Life: the Mission Play Special, 1919

Further evidence I have found includes the symbol’s use in advertisements in a 1919 edition of California Life and even swastikas painted within the Mission Playhouse to promote good luck and peace!

Swastika symbol painted on the ceiling of the Mission Playhouse theater.

Swastika symbol painted on the ceiling of the Mission Playhouse theater.