Historical Costume Blog

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An Introduction

June 18, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

Hello! I’m Kat, this summer’s Historical Costume Intern here at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. I am very excited to be exploring these incredible artifacts and will be sharing some of my findings with you over the next few weeks.

Who am I? I’m a recent BFA Ceramics graduate at CSULB. I’m fascinated with how objects are made, what their stories are, and how they can they influence the people and communities around them today. I’m thrilled to be with the Mission Playhouse as it offers me plenty of hands-on conservation experience.

A big part of conservation is… research! It’s very important to be fully prepared and informed before even handling the collections in order to prevent more harm. I’ve been spending much of my time reading up on textile conservation, including how to safely handle, store, and record collections.

 I’ve also been studying the histories of the Mission Play, its costumes, and the Playhouse as well, to get a sense of what these collections have already been through.

Costumes waiting on condition reports

Earlier this week, LACMA’s textile conservators Catherine McLean and Susan Schmalz came by to check on the Playhouse’s historical costumes, which are kept in the attic. It’s important for the costumes to be kept in a stable environment, free of dust, light, and insects/other vermin.

One suggestion they recommended was to carefully freeze the garments for at least 1 week before storing them in a Tyvek-covered final resting place—Tyvek is archival and great at blocking out light.. Freezing would help kill off any insects that might be living in the clothes (and eating them!). Besides writing condition reports, I plan on freezing as much of the collection as possible this summer. Stay tuned for updates!

The costumes were originally found in large wicker baskets… they are steadily being transferred into foil-lined cardboard boxes for safekeeping


Navigating the Past

August 25, 2017 | by Laila Jaffer

Most of the costumes that I have been working with over the course of this summer can be split into two categories of influence: Spanish and Native American. Some of the most beautiful items in our collection are the costumes of Spanish dancers who took part in the famed fiesta scene of the Mission Play. These red velvet breeches with gold sequined embroidery were worn by a dancer in the 1919 production of the Mission Play, and the red jacket was likely worn by another.


The fiesta scene may not have added much detail to the plot of the play, but the sensational performance, involving Spanish and Native American dancers, instruments, costumes, and more, became one of the largest draws for audiences to come to San Gabriel to see the play, due mainly to a growing revival of interest in the Mission era of California’s history. This interest sparked a movement to romanticize the history and aesthetic of California’s past colonization by Spain, resulting in a wave of media that played into the Mission Myth, a phenomenon which portrayed the Missions as idyllic places where Spanish priests and Indigenous Americans lived and worked together in harmony. The Mission Play itself, and thus the reason for the construction of the Mission Playhouse, was born from this benevolent view of the past.


From the special Mission Play edition of California Life c. 1919

It is crucial to note, however, that the reality of the Missions was far different from the idealized version of history that dominated popular culture; in fact, however well-intentioned any of the priests may have been, the Missions functioned as businesses, fueled by the unpaid, forced labour of Native Americans who suffered many atrocities and  were not allowed to leave once they took up residence there. This history was not publicized to the extent that it should have been due to the fact that it is much easier and more engaging to hear a history of peace, productivity, and happiness.


This idealization of the Mission era is the history we can see reflected in the beautiful Spanish-inspired costumes in our collection. Additionally, the mix of Spanish and Native American iconography throughout the design of the Mission Playhouse serves as a reminder of the long standing precedent in our country to portray our history in a much kinder light than it may deserve, weaving cultures together in a way that is unfortunately not accurate to the time it attempts to portray. My main takeaway from this project is that it is imperative that we preserve these pieces of history as important markers of the issues of our past, as well as inspiration to continue to improve as we move into the future!


An Interview

August 9, 2017 | by Laila Jaffer


Preserving History Article

A Soldier’s Uniform

July 31, 2017 | by Laila Jaffer


While cataloguing the pieces in our collection, I often come across items that seem to coordinate with each other or be part of a full costume. For example, the pieces in the images below were stored in different parts of our collection, yet clearly corresponded with each other! I decided to photograph them together to see what the full costume may have looked like.

As you can see from the tags, I had already completed condition reports for these pieces and added them to our archive; they had all been stored separately from each other, but it was easy to see the similarities.

There were a number of matching jackets and breeches that had the same red color and striped detailing, as well as a few leather collars that matched that of the jackets. I pulled the pieces that were in the best condition for the photos!







DSCN0631 DSCN0632

However, I needed more information to determine if these were truly part of a set. Luckily for me, it happened to take very little searching to find some historic photographs collected by previous interns that depicted these costumes, probably due to the fact that the soldier characters who wore these items were many and an important part of the Mission Play!

blog pic Glendale Lib

From the special Mission Play edition of California Life c. 1919

blog pic huntington lib

From the Huntington Library archives

While the main focus of my work this summer is on preserving and recording the condition of our costume collection, I’m glad that I could get a peek at the history of some of the items with which I am working! Hopefully, future interns or volunteers will be able to use the pictures that I take of each item in our archive, to do the same research for the rest of our collection.

Condition Reports

July 20, 2017 | by Laila Jaffer

The main focus of my work this summer is on examining the individual costume pieces, writing a condition report on each piece, and ensuring that each item is “resting peacefully.”

A condition report is an account of the appearance of an item when it is being archived. This report details, in the most clear and concise manner possible, any damage or signs of aging, and other important descriptions and images of the item. It is incredibly useful in tracking the condition of a garment over time. Also, for knowing which items are stable enough to be exhibited, or conducting research on a garment without having to disturb the garment itself.

Here is my usual process, as demonstrated on a beautiful pair of velvet shorts:


The first step is to use a special vacuum, recommended by LACMA’s Head of Textile Conservation, to gently vacuum the garment on the lowest possible setting. I hold the head of the vacuum at an angle and move in slow, soft strokes, making sure to avoid any delicate areas.

details 3

Then, with clean, careful hands, I examine the garment for any signs of damage or aging. These particular shorts are in remarkably good condition! The only real signs of damage I found were a couple of missing tassels.

label 2

I record the damage in a condition report and take a picture of the garment that can be used in the future for research purposes. Each piece has a unique accession number that can be referred to for identification, so I write that with an archival pen on a tag I have made out of soft Tyvek.

attached label

I then tie the tag to the garment with unbleached cotton thread and re-hang the item after gently padding the hanger with archival tissue. Now it’s ready to be placed safely inside the Tyvek covered garment rack!


New Summer, New Intern

July 10, 2017 | by Laila Jaffer

Hello! I’m Laila, the new Historical Costume Intern at the Mission Playhouse. I have been at the Playhouse since mid-June, and I am SO excited about continuing the work started by previous incredible interns like Alexis!


Photos by Jonathan Kwok

A little bit about me: I am a rising sophomore at NYU Gallatin, NYU’s School of Individualised Study. I am fascinated by the way clothing can reflect history, social context, personality, and culture, and as such I am studying a combination of these things. Since high school, I have had a deep interest in costuming, so I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the historic costumes at the Mission Playhouse!


Photos by Jonathan Kwok

So far I have been busy studying up on textile preservation and writing condition reports on the pieces of our collection. Though I’m just an intern, the goal is for my work to be as professional as possible in order to give these costumes the care and attention they need. I spent my first week researching textile preservation and the Playhouse itself from resources that Alexis used last year, and I was lucky enough to be able to head out to Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and sit in on a training session with Catherine McLean, Senior Textile Conservator at LACMA!

That session was incredibly helpful in bringing what I had been reading to life, and I am so grateful for that opportunity. We went over procedures on how to handle historic textiles, how to vacuum and clean them, and most importantly, how to store historic textiles in order to ensure that they are resting as peacefully as possible. With the research I did and Catherine’s help, I felt ready to begin working on the costumes themselves. Check back soon for more details on my journey through our historic costume collection!

Native American Swastika Skirt

August 18, 2016 | by Alexis M. Hill


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.


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.


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.

El Sombrero Blanco Skirt

August 10, 2016 | by Alexis M. Hill


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.

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.


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.


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


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.

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.


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!

An Introduction of Sorts


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