Vassar Today

Playing Dress Up

By Samantha Soper '91

The allure of fashion is nothing new for costume collector Nancy Brandon Allen ’39. As a drama major at Vassar focusing on costume design, Allen started collecting pieces from productions and her own wardrobe. Her collection really took off when she co-founded, with husband Jack, the Playmakers Theater Group in Batavia, Illinois, in 1945. Ten thousand garments and nearly 50 years later, some of those treasures are coming to Vassar.

Over winter break, two students traveled to Allen’s home to investigate the 200 vintage costumes. (In 1985, all but these 200 were sold as a fundraiser for local Illinois college theater departments.) Chandra Obie ’05 and Anna Wiencrot ’04 spent several days with the Allens, and returned to campus to consult with Vassar costume designer Arden Kirkland ’93 and Lecturer in Drama Holly Hummel about which costumes should become part of Vassar’s already distinguished collection. “In particular, we were looking for full turn-of-the-century ensembles, early teens to ’20s fashion … and anything related to Vassar, of course. We were also authorized to peg anything that was just plain interesting,”said Obie.

Thirty-five costumes, several of which are pictured above, now reside in the Center for Drama and Film. The Nancy Brandon Allen Collection will join the Ronni Carol Kleinman ’68 Collection, originally curated by Kirkland. Both collections are stored in the Vintage Costume Archive Space, donated by Katherine Freston ’52. The remaining garments, stored in the Allens’ attic in Batavia are available for local residents to borrow for theater productions.

“Like Nancy Allen, most of us who get involved with costume history get started working in costume design for theater, and using costumes to help tell a story. But when you start doing research, you realize that the clothes themselves have a story to tell! Each piece from the Allen collection, and the rest of the Vassar collection, tells us not only about who wore it, who designed it, and who made it, but even about the technology, economics, politics, morals, and aesthetics of the time in which it was made and worn. As a way of understanding history, I can’t think of any other form [other than costume studies] that as many people can relate to,” said Kirkland.