Emily Rosolowski, an assistant in the Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection at Indiana University, bends over a robe that’s spread flat on yards of crisp white paper. It looks expensive and seems flawless—a silken swath waiting for someone elegant and affluent to slip it on over the matching negligee that lies nearby. But its condition is not quite perfect, and even if it were, it’s certainly not destined for a trophy wife’s boudoir.
Rosolowski leans in to study a delicate thread loop that has pulled away from the slim waistline. “We’ll have to reattach that,” she says, pointing with a finger encased in a vinyl lab glove.
The last occasion when a bare hand actually touched this nightwear was sometime after Glenn Close finished filming Reversal of Fortune—the 1990 movie about the trial of socialite Claus von Bulow, accused in the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny. Close played the ill-fated Sunny, who fell into a mysterious coma that caused her suave-but-smarmy husband to be arrested. At some point after the film wrapped, she had the robe and nightgown pillowed in acid-free tissue and tucked into an archival box, protecting it from the ravages of time and souvenir-hunters.
In 2017, Close announced she was giving this and all the costumes she has saved from three decades of acting to IU. This month, an exhibit of those clothes called The Art of Character opens at the university’s art museum. There will be the trim, starched nurse’s uniform Close buttoned herself into for 1982’s The World According to Garp, as well as the extravagantly seductive confections of 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons (see p. 128). Her ensemble from the 2019 Oscars, a beaded sheath and cape that weighs more than 40 pounds and looks like liquid gold, will be there. So will her wardrobe from 101 Dalmatians, in all its campy, tot-terrifying glory.
The exhibit will feature only part of what has come from Close, some 800 items that represent 54 stage and screen productions. It’s a remarkable gift to the university, one that could put the Sage Collection—already one of the country’s best assemblages of costumes—on the map for designers and movie buffs.
For a century, though, the Sage Collection has been squirreling away clothing that speaks volumes not about movie stars, but about everyday people. Some of it is high style, some of it is lowly, and all of it has something to say about humanity in a particular place and time. Because it’s an “active” collection, it’s still accumulating the things people put on their bodies. Somewhere down the line, the care that’s being lavished on a bathrobe from the silver screen is bound to be repeated with a T-shirt from a Black Lives Matter protest or a home-sewn face mask.
From the fake furs of Cruella de Vil to relics of pandemic isolation, the collection is all about the fabric of our lives.
Elizabeth Sage came to IU in 1913 to join the university’s freshly minted Department of Home Economics, teaching clothing construction and publishing a textbook about fashion history. On sabbatical travels, she collected garments and textiles, bringing them back for students to pore over in class. When she retired in 1937, she donated it all to the university.
Today, the collection includes some 25,000 items—clothing, shoes, accessories, magazines, videos, and fashion illustrations. It’s a study resource for students and faculty in design, art, and theater, of course, but lots of other academic disciplines, too. The difference between a uniform worn in World War I and one from World War II could be an object lesson in 20th-century manufacturing. The difference between a student’s corduroy pants from the Eisenhower era versus jeans from the 1960s is a study in social change.
A researcher can read about these items, but examining them is profound. It brings history alive, says Heather Akou, the Sage Collection director. “When I show students an object, it’s humanizing,” she says. There’s a dress worn by an early female IU graduate. When Akou takes it to class—ground-sweeping skirt, snug bodice—“You can see them imagining her life,” she says, “and imagining themselves in her position.”
The collection that Akou oversees is wide-ranging and owes a lot to stylish Hoosiers. Designers with Indiana bona fides—Bill Blass, Roy Halston, and Norman Norell—are well represented, and thanks to generations of deep-pocketed donors who have given away their closet’s treasures, the holdings include both American and European haute couture. Then there’s the stuff worn by ordinary men, women, and children in everyday life. Perhaps more than anything, that’s what makes the Sage Collection a remarkable academic resource. “Clothing says so much,” says Akou. “And dressing is something that everyone does.”
When Kelly Richardson, a curator at the Sage Collection, gives a tour of IU’s newest auxiliary library facility—ALF 3—it’s easy to see the challenge of preserving, organizing, and storing it all. High shelving contains rows of boxes the size of small coffins marked with their contents—dresses, uniforms, jackets, shoes, purses, jeans. Richardson slides one out: a sumptuous black velvet gown with a neck-caressing ruffle, designed by Valentino and worn, no doubt, for some very fashionable occasion. Then she indicates another, shelved with WWI items: a Red Cross uniform worn by a woman who was a nutrition professor, who fed troops during the Great War. “That’s as important as the Prada and the Saint Laurent,” she says.
The collection includes 55 senior cords—the yellow corduroy pants and skirts that Indiana high school seniors decorated and wore until the fad died out in the 1970s. It can be challenging to collect beloved everyday clothing like this because it’s often worn to bits. But in Richardson’s view, hard use adds to the value of the garments from Clara Kinsey, wife of Alfred, forever associated with his sex research. Her family donated two dresses; the rest is hiking gear—old L.L. Bean trail pants, a rugged jacket, sporty middy blouses. “She was passionate about the outdoors,” Richardson says. “She led a hiking club for faculty wives for 40 years. And the things she saved were worn and torn and patched. Her clothes have her in them.”
Whether it’s a clumsily repaired coat from a midcentury sexologist’s spouse or a voluminous gown from a 19th-century ball, each piece requires museum-quality treatment. Before an item joins the collection, it spends a week in a preservation freezer to kill off moths, mites, mold, and other crud that preys on textiles. In storage, it’s kept at a constant 60 degrees and 40 percent humidity, swathed in special paper, padded to keep fibers from breaking. When it’s taken out for research or eased onto a mannequin for a museum exhibit, it’s touched only with gloved hands.
And, says Richardson, “No one will ever wear it.”
When reached by phone, Glenn Close answers the obvious question about how this stuff ended up at IU before it’s even asked. “The Met doesn’t collect costumes from movies or theater,” she says. Yes, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the first place she approached about taking stewardship of it all. No dice.
Her involvement with IU and its faculty began a half dozen years ago in conjunction with her nonprofit, Bring Change to Mind, which works to reduce the stigma around mental illness. While visiting Bloomington, Close learned about the Sage Collection and was impressed. “There’s no other place like it,” she says.
Early in her career, she recalls, “I even kept things in the basement for a while, in a mouse-infested house. I did an interview with Barbara Walters, and I took her down there to see them.” As the roles mounted, so did the need to handle and store everything professionally, which she has now been doing for years.
It’s not common for actors to hang on to their costumes—at least not to this extent. Robert De Niro has kept his, along with scripts and film items, and has given them to the University of Texas. But few actors retain garments as deliberately as Close: It’s in her contract. She says that so far, only Disney has resisted her attempts to acquire her costumes. Producers for 101 and 102 Dalmatians initially balked at parting with Cruella de Vil’s evil glam wrought by award-winning designer Anthony Powell. “They wanted to make duplicates,” she says. “I said no.”
In the end, she got permanent custody of the originals, if not absolute ownership. “They’re lent in perpetuity,” she says. They’ll be part of the exhibit this spring, but you won’t see publicity photos because Disney still controls the images. The Mouse is a tough negotiator.
There’s a robust appetite for costume exhibits lately. Downton Abbey duds have toured to America’s museums; so have those from Star Wars. But most costumes have a more modest afterlife. When a play closes or a film wraps, they’re often sold to costume houses to be rented out, altered, or pulled apart and repurposed for new productions. That’s what Close wants to prevent.
“On the most basic level, they represent the development of a character,” she says. From making the preliminary mock-up garments to the final touches, “You are in the fitting room every step of the way. To me, especially in filmmaking, that’s as important as a rehearsal. You see how the character is developing, and you think about how you’ll feel in the costume, how the character will walk, sit, move.”
In interviews, Close has talked a lot about her relationship with the designers she has worked with and the armies of craftspeople who’ve made these garments, “the artistry and the hours” of talented folks behind the scenes, so many of whom have lost their jobs during quarantine. “I’m so thrilled people will be able to get up close with this craftsmanship,” she says.
But she also realizes that her career has included costumes significant beyond the klieg lights, and that makes them teaching tools. Close doesn’t call herself an icon, but some of these costumes are iconic. Especially, she says, “the leather coat and the white dress.”
If that reference is unfamiliar, you’ve probably never seen Fatal Attraction. A terrifying psychological thriller from 1987, it’s the story of a happily married man, an erotic one-nighter, and a spurned woman—Close as Alex Forrest—who turns obsessive. The film was a box office success and scored six Academy Award nominations. It also birthed enduring controversy about infidelity’s double standard and the vilification of mental illness. The coat and dress that Close refers to are iconic because they’re seared into fans’ memories as deeply as (spoiler alert) the bunny-boiling.
Gender studies professor Jennifer Maher used the leather coat in class not long after it arrived in Bloomington. Her students were studying second-wave feminism, so she had them view Fatal Attraction, a film unfamiliar to most of them. The next time the class met, she displayed—unannounced—the black leather coat Alex wears, with the broad, mannish shoulders and tightly cinched waist so stylish at the time. When the lid came off the box, she says, “They all had an intake of breath. One said, ‘Oh, that’s the bitch jacket!’” That launched the day’s discussion about the backlash to feminism in the 1980s. “Why are we supposed to see her as a bitch?” Maher asked her class.
If clothes carry the essence of an era, then today’s fashions will be part of future lessons. Consider T-shirts. They’ve been used for political expression for years. “But in the 1960s or ’70s, you had to know someone who was a screen printer,” says Akou, the Sage Collection director. “Technology changed that.” Today’s activists can go online, upload an image, connect with followers, and produce T-shirts before the sun sets on a protest rally. Future researchers who study the explosive events of our time can add political fast fashion to their notes.
But they won’t be able to see those polarizing T-shirts and ballcaps unless people donate them. The Sage Collection doesn’t have an acquisitions budget; it depends on individuals saving and sharing items of significance. Ask anyone what “significant” accessory embodies the past year, and they’re bound to say face masks—and not just the now-ubiquitous paper ones. Last spring, when PPE was in critically short supply, the homemade masks stitched up for frontline workers by volunteer groups represented an extraordinary culture of caring in a fractious time. As the need to social distance dragged on, the masks that people created for loved ones have taken on meaning. “They’re something physical in a time when we can’t be physical,” Maher says. “Making someone a mask is a kind of intimacy.”
It’s not always obvious what will resonate in the future. The collection has one of the few surviving “Rosie the Riveter” uniforms from WWII, worn by a woman who worked in an aircraft factory in Evanston. “An ordinary orange rayon pantsuit,” Richardson says, but rare enough that the Smithsonian has exhibited it.
Surprisingly, very few women whose work immortalized America’s wartime effort hung on to their factory gear. But you don’t necessarily know you’re making history when you’re in the middle of it. Much of collecting, says Akou, “is a matter of circling back to people 10, 15 years later and saying, ‘Do you still have this thing?’”
It’s possible that even if you’ve spent the last several months living in sweatpants, bedroom slippers, and Zoom business casual, your closet has captured an era.