HIDDEN HISTORY

Tour offers rare glimpse of State Museum’s Costumes and Textiles Collection

Photo provided by the Louisiana State MuseumThe photo ‘Canal Street 1912’ will be on display during Hidden Treasures: Carnival Edition. This tour of the Louisiana State Museum’s costumes archives will be in its collections facility on Tuesday and Thursday, Jan. 22 and 24, 2013. The museum opens the facility only once a year.
Photo provided by the Louisiana State MuseumThe photo ‘Canal Street 1912’ will be on display during Hidden Treasures: Carnival Edition. This tour of the Louisiana State Museum’s costumes archives will be in its collections facility on Tuesday and Thursday, Jan. 22 and 24, 2013. The museum opens the facility only once a year.

It makes you wonder what happens when Wayne Phillips leaves for the day.

Does the War of 1812 soldier dance with the Queen of Comus? Does the society of the 1920s mix with that of the 1970s?

Oh, the ’70s. The decade wasn’t really elegant when it comes to clothing, but there are some pretty great vintages pieces from the era here.

From many eras, in fact, because one of the Louisiana State Museum’s tasks is to collect and document the state’s history, even through its collection of clothing.

A big part of that documentation is chronicling not only New Orleans’ but Louisiana’s Mardi Gras celebrations and traditions through its costumes.

And all of it is stored and cataloged inside the Louisiana State Museum’s Collection Storage Facility.

Not such a fancy name for a building that houses a big bulk of history, is it? When you see the building’s location at 1000 Chartres St. in New Orleans’ French Quarter, you won’t think it’s so fancy, either.

And you will have a chance to see it on Tuesday and Thursday, Jan. 22 and 24, 2013, when the Friends of the Cabildo hosts its Hidden Treasures: Carnival Edition tour.

There are other tours throughout the year, featuring different components of the State Museum’s collection, but this is the only time of the year when the Costumes and Textiles Collection opens its doors to the public.

The timing is perfect. Mardi Gras season will begin the Monday after Sunday, Jan. 6, the 12th day of Christmas.

Yes, the 12th day as in the Christmas carol. And Phillips will have costumes representing different krewes and eras of New Orleans royalty on display for visitors to see.

Phillips is the State Museum’s curator of Costumes and Textiles. He’s the collection’s only curator, which means he has the whole floor of the facility to himself.

Then again, who knows what spirits might be lurking beside him? It’s only natural to wonder, because when looking at clothing, you can’t help but think about the people who wore it: The elegant ladies who wore the beautiful gowns to New Orleans parties in the 1920s. The hip crowd who weren’t afraid of mod and loud stylings in the 1970s. The neatness of the 1940s and ’50s.

It’s all hanging in order throughout the collection’s floor. But there’s a catch to all of this. The clothing here wasn’t chosen at random or merely because of style.

Each piece has a Louisiana provenance, a trail or connection to the state’s history, whether it was made by a designer inspired by a Louisiana landscape or product or something purchased from a legendary department store that no longer stands.

Everything has a story, a reason. This is another reason you can’t help wondering what happens when Phillips leaves for the day.

Is there some kind of Ahkmenrah phenomenon that brings the room to life? Ahkmenrah is a character whose magical tablet brought exhibits to life in the 2006 film, Night at the Museum.

But the magic here is in the stories. Clothing is personal, making statements about the people who designed and wore it. You may not know who the people were who wore the clothing here, but anyone walking through the collection surely will be drawn to a favorite piece.

This makes a statement about those looking at the collection.

And in the end, it’s better than any movie, because it’s a runway of Louisiana’s culture and traditions, one of those traditions being Mardi Gras royalty.

“The museum began collecting costumes in the 1920s,” Phillips said. “We have about 1,000 objects in our Mardi Gras collection, and 30 of our costumes are on exhibit.”

But the rest are stored in the collections facility, which again, would never be described as fancy. In fact, it’s probably one of the most nondescript buildings in the French Quarter. People walk by without noticing; only those working there seem interested in finding the entrance.

Once inside, well, the interior wasn’t designed to impress, either. But that’s OK. The facility is a climate controlled warehouse with thick walls on multiple floors, and each floor houses treasure.

That’s how lovers of history would see it, anyway, because stories unfold here.

Louisiana’s stories.

And the Costumes and Textiles collection tells its story not only through Mardi Gras costumes and high fashion of the past but such accessories as jewelry, gloves, hats and purses.

Menswear items from the 19th century to the present include a windbreaker worn by Louisiana photographer Fonville Winans.

The earliest of the collection’s uniforms are two worn by Philogene Favrot and William Hamilton in the War of 1812. The floor also is home to Gen. Zachary Taylor’s felt sombrero and white silk sword sash from the Mexican War and Gen. Claire Chennault’s World War II uniform.

There also is a small collection of women’s uniforms, both civil and military, including those from the Red Cross, YWCA, Army and Navy.

But it doesn’t stop there. World War II uniforms in this room were worn by both allies and enemies, including a jacket that belonged to Field Marshall Keitel, supreme commander of German Forces.

In the infants and children’s category, the state’s Catholic heritage is reflected by 32 christening gowns dating from 1840 to 1912. Two of the gowns are said to have been made by Ursuline nuns.

See how this works? The Ursuline Sisters were the first Catholic nuns to land in the New World in 1639, and the Old Ursuline Convent in the Vieux Carre is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley.

So, the two christening gowns made by these nuns tell the story not only of the infants who wore them but the nuns who produced the first female pharmacist, the first woman to contribute a book of literary merit, the first convent, the first free school and first retreat center for ladies, first classes for female slaves, free women of color and Native Americans.

Amazing how one or two objects can say so much.

And that’s just the clothing and costume side of the room. Textiles include ecclesiastical needlework, needlepoint portraits, furniture decoration, Newcomb style art embroidery, flats and banners, and 157 souvenirs in the form of cloth badges, streamers, handkerchiefs, ribbons, banners, programs, scarfs, cushions, cases, fabric samples and aprons.

Finally, there are the documentary items, including fashion plates, fashion magazines and patterns and pattern books.

The collection houses some 15,000 objects in all.

And again, Mardi Gras will be in the spotlight when doors are opened to visitors in January with a gathering not only of costumes but jewelry, favors, paper invitations, paper programs and illustrations.

Phillips will be the guide on this journey, just as he was at this moment, pointing out some favorites, others with interesting stories and still others whose historical relevance is so overwhelming that you realize that you would see such a piece only in a museum.

Then again, this is a museum, just not one regularly on display.

A museum that houses a collection filled with items so personal that you can almost see the people to whom they once belonged.

It’s at that point that your imagination runs awry, and you wonder if the floor comes to life when Phillips leaves for the day.

But then you realize, that it’s already alive, telling its part of Louisiana’s story.