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Summer 2019 – Lisa Lawrence

Fabric Identification

July 19th, 2019 | by Lisa Lawrence

As a costume design student, the construction and fabric choices of these garments I have been archiving is particularly fascinating to me. I have noticed that a great deal of the costumes were made with natural fibers, with wool, silk, linen, and cotton.

A silk scarf.










Wool shirt.

Wool shirt up close, the fuzzy texture is a giveaway for the fiber content.





Some of them, however, are obviously made of polyester satin or other blends.

The easiest, most foolproof way to determine fiber content is, surprisingly, lighting the fabric in question on fire! The smell given off will determine the fibers, such as cotton giving off a smell of burning paper, or silk giving off a smell of burnt hair.

Example of fabrics reacting to a burn test; notice how the polyester (middle) melts, while the silk and cotton (left and right) are charred.












However, I obviously cannot do that with these costumes! Therefore, it is up to my discretion and senses to make an educated guess as to what the fabric is.

I begin with handling the garment carefully, because the weight and feel often helps me decide what kind of fabric it is.

Sight is also a major determining factor, and an up close look with a magnifying glass helps to see how exactly the fabric was woven. For instance: silk and linen often look irregular due to their natural fibers. Wool is often easily identified for its “fuzzy”, thick texture. Polyester, or polyester blends are often very precise and regular due to their artificial fibers.


Silk fabric up close.


Polyester up close.








Linen up close.

Wool up close.













Thorough, informative condition reports are a significant aspect of working in conservation and archives, and having detailed descriptions serves to help future handlers of the costume collection.


Spangles to Sequins

June 25th, 2019 | by Lisa Lawrence

One of the most rewarding aspects of doing the archival project is coming across costumes that are easily identifiable in the historical photo archives. Seeing the costume pieces in their various stages of deterioration today is nothing like how it would have been seeing them in the Mission Play, which is why the historical photos are such a great resource. For instance, this black sequined women’s bolero jacket was the first costume I archived, and looking through the photos later, I found that one of the Fiesta dancers is wearing one of these jackets!

Black sequined bolero jacket.













The sequins that once dangled from the hem are visible on the right side of the woman in the center front. Image courtesy of LA Library Photo Archive.





















Some of the sequins at the lower hem are now missing, but it is obvious in this photo that they used to be there. What is interesting is to note how the plastic, cheap sequins we know of today are very different from the ones on this jacket, which have a more substantial, metal-type feel to them.

















Sequins used to be known as “spangles” in earlier centuries. They were made of precious metals, most often, reflecting wealth and status, as well as being a pretty decoration. Some of the earliest versions involved using coins, such as in the image below.


Leather war dress with Chinese coins and English brass buttons sewn on, c. 17th-18th century. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.






















However, in the 1930s, a new form of making sequins came about: using gelatin! An interesting aspect about gelatin-based sequins is that they melt if exposed to hot temperatures. With the sweltering heat in San Gabriel, it’s no surprise that many of the sequins on this jacket were melted together- something I had never encountered before.

At the center of this photo, the sequins that have warped and melted together are visible.



















Herbert Lieberman was the man behind the sequins we know today, some of which I found on a different shirt in the costume archive.


These sequins were noticeably of a lighter weight and felt flimsy.



















He worked to produce acetate based sequins, which were highly reflective but fragile and brittle. When DuPont invented Mylar, Lieberman’s company adopted the material to cover the acetate sequins with, thus preventing them from damage. Eventually, vinyl plastic replaced it altogether, which are what sequins we know today are made out of.

The sewing notions from the past were often made with different materials than today, since plastics, polyester, and other manmade materials have been much cheaper and easier to produce in modern times.


Source(s): Spivack, Emily. “A History of Sequins From King Tut to the King of Pop”. 28 December 2012. 2019.





June 11th, 2019 | by Lisa Lawrence

Hello! My name is Lisa Lawrence, and I am the Historical/Archival Costume Intern for the Mission Playhouse this summer! I am very excited to be continuing the work of previous interns, as well as working in such a historic and beautiful theatre.

I am currently a rising junior at Loyola Marymount University, majoring in theatre with a costume design focus, which is why this opportunity to work with nearly century-old costumes is a particularly interesting one. As a southern California native, I have a passion for history of the California missions as well.

My first week at the Playhouse, I began with reading and research of the Mission Play, San Gabriel, and costume conservation. Having the background of the script allows me to be more informed about the costumes I am dealing with, and possibly be able to identify them as the ones used in the historical photos.















Researching proper methods for textile conservation has allowed me to refresh my memory from my textile conservation class, as well as become informed on the most up to date practices. Next week, I will be meeting with Catherine McLean, the senior textile conservator at LACMA, and touring the facilities there!

I also began during my first week with archiving the costumes and writing condition reports. It is vital to be detailed, thorough, and precise when condition reporting so that they are clear to the next person who reads the reports. After condition reporting, I vacuum the fabric with a special attachment to remove surface dirt, as well as possibly insect larvae. Folding the costumes up and covering them with archival tissue is the next step, and then placing them in the cardboard boxes which are labeled with the garments’ accession numbers.


















Since this project has been ongoing for a few summers now, there are merely two wicker baskets of costumes left, and hopefully I will get through most of them in the duration of my time here. My other task at hand is to work on archiving the paper documents from the Mission Play.

I will continue to update my progress as I move along in this project, so be on the lookout for new posts!


Summer 2018 – Katarina Stiller

Swallows and Sequins

August 9, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

As I had mentioned in earlier blog posts, much of my summer has been spent carefully recording and storing the Mission Play costumes. The costumes had originally been transferred from large wicker baskets into Tyvek-lined clothing racks by previous summer interns. I have then been recording and placing them in foil-lined cardboard boxes as a more final resting place.

Mission Play basket—note the “MISSION PLAY” stamp at the bottom

Nearing the end of my internship, and approaching the end of the racks of costumes I thought I had left to write up condition reports for and carefully box away, I decided to take a peek inside one of the great wicker baskets. It had originally been set aside from the other Mission Play era wicker baskets—initial looks at it seemed to yield only dusty blankets and garments not from the Mission Play. Finding non-Mission Play items in the Mission Play baskets was not unusual—over the decades, space was limited for storing other theatre pieces so the only partially-filled baskets became an obvious solution.

Opening the basket

After carefully removing the first few layers of blankets, I started to notice the now familiar beaded leather pants, velvet jackets, and glittering sequined dresses. These were Mission Play costumes! Just as I think I am approaching the end of a major collection/preservation management endeavor, more mysteries are revealed.

One of these dresses in particular caught my eye. Its detailing was particularly elaborate, with intricate embroidery all over the bodice and sequins stitched all over the dress’s numerous silky ruffles. This was a costume for a major character and was designed to stand out. But who was the character?

Details of the dress

I found my answer among the photo archives of the Mission Play.

Eleanor Bryan in the Mission Play (c.1930). Close-up of sequined bodice. Photo courtesy of Little Landers Historical Society/Bolton Hall Museum, Tujunga, CA.

The vine embroidery, sequins, ruffles, little tassels… this dress was a match. It was for the “La Golondrina” character in the 1930s. During Act II of the Mission Play, there was a great deal of singing and celebration, since this was set during the most successful, prosperous era of the California missions. The song “La Golondrina” was performed, hence the need for a “La Golondrina” dress. This song was followed by another traditional California number “La Jota”. This fiesta scene was a particularly spectacular and colorful part of the play, hence the need for such rich, elaborate clothing.

La Golondrina or “The Swallow” is a traditional song from Mexico. It is about the poor swallow who cannot go home or has no home to return to. The sweet sorrow of this popular song was especially poignant when it was sung again at the end of the play, during Act III when the missions were run down and abandoned. The play’s writer, John Steven McGroarty, appeared to have taken great care in making sure the Mission Play’s music would not only be appealing but also historically accurate. The songs and music in the play were as old as or even older than the missions.

John Steven McGroarty actually even wrote a play La Golondrina, which first debuted in 1922. It was based on a 19th century historical California romance and was set to the tempo of the “La Golondrina” song. Written to complement the Mission Play, it also had a cast of over 100 characters, many of whom were performers in the Mission Play.

LA Times posting for La Golondrina’s debut in 1922.


Morning Press. “Santa Barbara Mission to be Shown in Play.” California Digital Newspaper Collection. 30 July 1922. 2018.

 Press, Riverside Daily. “Age Old Melodies Mark Mission Play Production.” California Digital Newspaper Collection. 22 March 1917. 2018.

A Dress to Impress

August 8, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

This week, I came across some beautiful Native American children costumes. They are in remarkable condition and their beading and embroidery show some stunning attention to detail.

I started looking through the Mission Play photo archive and found a match for one of the costumes.

Actors in the Mission Play (c.1930). Photo courtesy of Little Landers Historical Society/Bolton Hall Museum, Tujunga, CA. The young girl on the far left appears to be wearing a costume quite similar to one I found above.

The Mission Play was notable in particular for having such a large and diverse cast of over 150 members. The content of the play’s story itself would be viewed as outdated and inaccurate by today’s standards, since it tended to romanticize the history of California’s missions, while understating the not-so-idyllic treatment of Native American populations. However, the performances were noteworthy in their employment of Native American and Mexican American actors, which was not at all common at the time.

Actors in the Mission Play, including the same girl seen in the previous image wearing the costume I found (c.1930). Photo courtesy of Little Landers Historical Society/Bolton Hall Museum, Tujunga, CA.

It is also remarkable that a play based on a major era of Catholic history achieved such nationally-renowned success, since audiences were predominantly Protestant at the time. Anti-Catholic sentiment was widespread in early 20th century America, which largely stemmed from anti-immigration tensions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. was experiencing an influx of immigrant populations, with Catholics making up one of the largest groups, resulting in national distrust and hostilities being focused on Catholics in particular. Both in remembering its inaccuracies and milestones, the Mission Play remains a significant work in California history and culture.


Holland, Gale. “Dated but Dearly Recalled.” Los Angeles Times. 4 May 2012. 2018.

Zeitz, Josh. “When America Hated Catholics.” Politico. 23 September 2015. 2018.

A Closer Look

August 6, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

Conservation work can involve quite a bit of detective work at times. Because the Mission Play costumes were stored for so long, it’s entirely possible that other kinds of clothes found their way into the same baskets over the decades. To figure out when something was made, the answer can usually be found in the little details.

How to date clothing:

  1. Fabric and stitching—a lot of the original Mission Play costumes were handstitched and frequently made from cotton, suede, or wool. Newer clothes are more likely to be machine stitched and can contain materials that would not have been widely available in the early 20th century (like Spandex or poly/cotton blends).

    Close-ups of Mission Play costume stitching.

  2. Labels—the design of a label can be a good indicator of a garment’s age. The presence of union labels, half sizes, lot/style numbers, and “Made in America” tags can be a general indicator of older clothing. The company name and text style can also be checked to see how long that company has been in existence. A lot of the Mission Play costumes might also have handwritten numbers/labels on them.

“SG” followed by a number can be found on many of the Mission Play costumes.

  1. Zippers—metal zippers are generally a good indicator that the garment was made before the 1960s. Plastic zippers would come into use long after the Mission Play Unless they were added on later to replace original closures, garments found with plastic zippers probably aren’t from the original Mission Play. Early zipper locations were generally along the side of the garment; later this would migrate to the center back of an outfit.

Plastic zipper

These guidelines are not an exact science, though they are a good starting point for identifying clothing age. Looking at historical photographs of the Mission Play can also be extremely helpful at identifying costumes. Overall, positively identifying costumes generally requires brute research, a careful eye, and a fair amount of patience.

Putting it all Together

July 20, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

This week I decided to see how a Mission Play costume would look fully assembled—something that most of the Playhouse’s costumes last experienced when they were being used in performances about 100 years ago. When the Mission Play ended and its costumes were placed in large wicker baskets, the different parts of an outfit were not necessarily kept together—so it is rather exciting that a full outfit can be assembled (like finally fitting all of the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle together).

I have assembled the costume for an altar server. An altar server acts as an assistant to the priest during church services—particularly in Roman Catholic services. The Mission Play altar server outfit consists of a red cassock (the ankle-length garment), a white cotta (the light-weight blouse), and a red skull cap. It is in remarkable condition for its age.

Detail of lace on cotta.

I found a very similar outfit to the one assembled in a historical cast photo (see below), helping identify it as a Mission Play costume.

Cast photo detail of the Mission Play (c. 1911-1926). Photo is a reproduction. Original found in the Huntington Library/Connie Rothstein Collection.

I also found part of the costume for a padre’s outfit. Some of the Mission Play padres can be seen above, standing behind the altar servers.

A padre’s hood or cowl was worn over a loose robe with a full skirt and long sleeves as well as a robe tied around the waist. Around since medieval times, cowls served the dual purpose of keeping monks warm in drafty, stone churches as well as blocking out distractions when praying. Robes were generally made of unbleached wool that could be brown, gray, or white. Rather than wool, this cowl is made out of more breathable, heavy cotton, making it much easier on a performer in the Southern California climate. Stay tuned to see what I uncover next!

Franciscan Missionaries. Photo courtesy of Zephyrin Engelhardt’s San Juan Capistrano Mission (1922).


Social Studies Fact Cards, “Padres Quarters,” 2018.

An Interview

July 19, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

Here’s a video of me talking a little bit more about what I do at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. 



Special thanks to Jonathan Fu and the City of San Gabriel for putting this video together!

What to Wear

July 16, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

John Steven McGroarty’s Mission Play story spanned several decades, covering the arrival of the first Spanish missionaries in 1769; to fifteen years later when the California missions were nearing their most populous, successful period; and finally ending in 1847, when the missions were in a more ruined and abandoned state. As the years went on during the course of the play, costumes seemed to reflect this, offering styles with varying levels of Western influence.

John and Ida McGroarty (c.1910-1915). Courtesy of McGroarty Arts Center/San Fernando Valley History Digital Library.

Noticing the different costume styles and understanding the Mission Play story as well has the historical period it was set in, helps me with properly identifying the costumes that I find in the Playhouse’s costume collection. Ida McGroarty, John McGroarty’s wife, was the costume designer for the play. As I examine the costumes she designed, I try to determine the degree of historical accuracy they have, since the play itself was set in such an important time period.

R.D. Mclean portraying Junipero Serra with an actor portraying a Native American (1926). Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library.

Ida McGroarty’s attention to detail paid homage to historical Native clothing styles, though the styles of different tribes across the U.S. tend to get blurred rather than focusing on the styles of Southern California tribes. For example, eagle feather headdresses (like the one pictured above) and swastika-styled beading (discussed in my earlier blog post) were not worn by California tribes, though they both were featured in the play.

Postcard image of Act I of the Mission Play depicting the first baptism of the Native Americans. Note the partially clothed, unbaptized Natives on the left and the clothed Natives knelt in prayer on the right. Original found at San Gabriel Historical Museum.

The postcards above help indicate costume style development for the Native American characters as the play progressed. Initially, the Native American characters are not as fully clothed as the European friars and soldiers, wearing furs and little else.

Postcard image of Act II of the Mission Play depicting the Native American Pageant. The Natives have been living at the Mission for some time now and their clothing reflects this. Original found at San Gabriel Historical Museum.

The first postcard above shows a Mission Play performer as a Native American at the beginning of the play, first meeting Western missionaries. The lack of clothing suggests the lack of Western influence in contrast to scenes later on in the play. The second image shows a Mission Play performer as a Native American living under Mission rule, sporting loose cotton clothes with long sleeves.

Padres required Native Americans living on Missions to dress a certain way. Men typically wore long shirts, and loose trousers tied with a sash or cord. Women wore short sleeved blouses and full skirts.

Close-up photos of a Mission Play cast photo (c. 1911-1926). Original found at San Gabriel Historical Museum.

Historically speaking, Native American clothing varied quite widely depending on the region and season. Animal skins were a very common material used in clothing. Hides were tanned to make soft leather which was comfortable and durable. Due to the warmer climate, Native Americans in the Southern California region likely wore little to no clothing prior to increasingly extensive Western contact.

Mission Play performers (c. 1930). Note the man’s cotton shirt, loose trousers, and belt sash. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library.

Furs and pelts were a major trading commodity, particularly when trading with Europeans. In North America as a whole, Native Americans traded pelts for desired European goods like guns, knives, cloth, beads, and tobacco. “Bucks” or deerskins were a common substitute for dollars in this early North American trade exchange system. More specifically, on the California missions, little Native American-European trade was taking place. Instead, Native Americans were required to remain on mission property to work as laborers. Father Serra and other missionaries had hoped to train the Native Americans to become skilled laborers ready for Spanish rule, though final results tended to fall short of this.

R.D. Mclean portraying Junipero Serra, along with two actors portraying Native Americans (c. 1926). Note the fur pelts worn. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library.

It is important to note that despite the mission-life romanticized in the Mission Play, conditions for the Native Americans were likely far from idyllic. With Serra’s arrival, quality of life did not improve for Native Americans, who were unused to such a strictly regimented lifestyle. Being required to radically change their diet, language, religion, and lifestyle was a major shock for Native Americans who lived at the Missions. Death, disease, malnutrition, runaways, and rebellions were common occurrences on the California missions. A major challenge for the California missionaries was maintaining a stable enough workforce for missions to become self-sufficient.

Missionary approaching Native Americans. Close up photos of a Mission Play cast photo (c. 1911-1926). Original found at San Gabriel Historical Museum.


Economic History Association. Economic History. 2018. 2018.

Byrne, Stephen. History for Kids. n.d. 2018.

McWilliams, Carey. Southern California: An Island on the Land. Layton: Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2010.

Social Studies Fact Cards, “Weaving Workshop.” 2018.

Sign of the Times

July 9, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

I spend much of my time working on condition reports for costumes in the Playhouse’s historical collection. I also spend time researching the history behind the costumes, trying to match them to historical photos of the Mission Play.

Photos above are reproduced from original found in the Huntington Library/Connie Rothstein Collection.

The Mission Play performances had a cast of 150 members, including men, women and children, resulting in a diverse mix of costumes in the Playhouse’s historical collection. Part of the Mission Play cast, prior to the opening of the Mission Playhouse in 1927, is seen above.

Recently, I’ve been examining the costumes from some of the Native American characters.

The images above show Native American-styled shirts for child and adult performers in the Mission Play. Note the swastikas painted on the adult’s shirt sleeves, indicating its pre-WWII origins. Prior to WWII, the swastika symbol was used in numerous cultures often as a good luck symbol or sign of goodwill. Since the WWII era, when Hitler used it as the centerpiece of the Nazi flag, it has been more closely associated with fascism.

The swastika symbol appears quite regularly on the Mission Play Native American clothes as seen again on this pair of pants. I noticed some fairly similar swastika pants on an original cast photo of the Mission Play, as seen below.

Cast photo detail of the Mission Play cast (c. 1911-1926). Photo is a reproduction. Original found in the Huntington Library/Connie Rothstein Collection.

While pre-WWII swastikas might most notably be linked to Indus Valley civilizations, Hinduism, and Buddhism, this symbol has actually been found in some Native American cultures as well, however I did not find much association of this symbol with Southern California tribes. The most notable southwestern Native American usage of the swastika was with the Navajo, who used this symbol in healing rituals. The Navajo are a Southwestern Native American people living primarily in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

19th century Navajo rug. Photo courtesy of Mohawk Arms, Inc.

In the early 20th century during the time of the Mission Play, swastikas could often be found in advertisements due to their associations with good luck. This might explain where Ida McGroarty, the Mission Play costume designer, first saw these images.  

Coca Cola advertisement with little swastikas (c. 1916).


Native Languages of the Americas. 2014.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2018.

Warpaths to Peace Pipes: Native American Symbols. n.d.

Deep Freeze

July 7, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

As detailed in my first blog post, I’ve been steadily freezing the Playhouse’s costume collection. This is to help kill off any bugs that may be hiding in (and eating) the garments.

To do this, I wrapped the cardboard boxes seen below–filled with historical costumes–in heavy duty plastic to protect the garments from any moisture. I posted a chart outside the freezer door to keep track of the temperature and time as I load and unload different boxes each week. This is so I can make sure the objects are getting cold enough. 

I let the costumes freeze for one week at below zero temperatures undisturbed before removing them. I let them reach room temperature before handling the costumes again because extreme cold can make fabrics quite brittle and fragile. Once they have warmed up again, I check for any signs of moisture. I’m happy to report that historical costume freezing has been a success so far!

Loading boxes for freezing.


A Visit

June 25, 2018 | by Kat Stiller

I was recently invited to visit Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and its conservation labs for a lesson in textile handling and care. Their labs are amazing!

Paintings on easels in the Paint Lab.

When art is first brought in to LACMA, it is carefully processed and labeled. They have large chest freezers to decontaminate objects before they come into contact with the rest of the museum’s collections. Textiles, wood, and other edible materials are particular favorites for moths and beetles. Cold temperatures help kill off these kinds of pests. Anoxia treatment, which deprives the environment of oxygen, can also be used in pest control. For anoxia, objects are placed in an airtight container where oxygen can be flushed out with other gases such as nitrogen.

Art objects being labeled with their accession number, artist, and title.

Cleanliness and order are particularly important here. Since they are so fragile, textiles should be handled as little as possible. It’s best to plan all your moves out and make sure you have a clean work space before you start moving objects about!

The textile lab, with costumes hanging on carefully padded hangers. The extra padding helps clothes maintain their natural shape and prevent creasing. Clothes are given plenty of space on racks to avoid abrasions when they’re removed.

Susan Schmalz, Associate Textile Conservator at LACMA, demonstrated different tools used for cleaning costumes. A special low-suction vacuum is used to remove dust and dirt by either gently dabbing or brushing the garment through a screen. Working slowly and carefully is important here, especially when dealing with more delicate materials like silks and lace.

A vacuum and mesh screen are pictured next to a flag awaiting cleaning. Behind them, objects are stored either in archival boxes or rolled in tissue-lined tubes. Everything is labelled and there are photos of the items attached to the outside of the boxes/tubes for easy identification. Exposure to light is incredibly harmful to textiles over time.

Readying textiles for display can be an incredibly painstaking process. Often, mockups are made in order to work out how best to position pieces on mannequins so that the original costumes aren’t stressed or damaged. It’s a multi-person job hanging, pinning, steaming, and shaping garments of all sizes, so that they are ready for viewing.

A conservator carefully steamed small sections of this dress as it was shaped over the mannequin to remove wrinkles. This had to be done very slowly to prevent the steam from forming water droplets on the mannequin.

After this LACMA training session, I feel really prepared to take on the Mission Playhouse Historical Costume Project. I’m very excited to see what I will discover and am incredibly grateful for such an opportunity!

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 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 costumes in order to prevent unnecessary stress. 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 Head of Textiles Conservation, Catherine McLean, and LACMA’s Associate Textile Conservator, 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. I am currently transferring them into foil-lined cardboard boxes for safekeeping.


Summer 2017 – Laila Jaffer

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!

Summer 2016 – Alexis Hill

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.