URI textiles program offers gallery visitors a glimpse of college fashion spanning 125 years

Special collection on display in University of Rhode Island’s Quinn Hall

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A romper-style basketball jersey from 1942 is part of the University of Rhode Island’s Historic Textile Exhibition in Quinn Hall. Photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 8, 2017 — To step through the doors of the Textile Gallery in Quinn Hall on the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston Campus is to take a step backward in time. Behind the glass display case are dresses, suits, hats, shoes and more from bygone eras.

To continue further through the gallery is to walk through a hall of history, with each garment, each display bringing the viewer closer to this historic year as the University of Rhode Island celebrates its 125th anniversary. Clothes popular during the Industrial Revolution give way to raccoon coats that were the epitome of manhood in the Roaring ‘20s. World War II-era uniforms give way to romper style uniforms worn by basketball players and woolen bathing suits worn by the swim team. Nurses uniforms from the 1950s give way to bellbottoms of the 1960s and leisure suits of the 1970s. The jeans – some quite unusual – of the 1980s and 1990s give way to the T-shirts of today.

These are the clothes students wore across generations on campus. The exhibit is curated by Margaret Ordoñez, professor of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design, along with seven of her graduate students.

The group painstakingly combed through the University’s Historic Textile and Costume Collection of more than 30,000 items – including hats, fans, shoes, adornments, dresses, jackets, children’s clothing, fabrics and more spanning thousands of years of human history – to find clothes representative of what students wore over the past 125 years.

“It took hundreds of hours,” said graduate student Ashley Holm, a history major from North Scituate. “Narrowing down what we were going to use was definitely a challenge.”

The group researched the history of both the University and fashion trends of the times. Group members explored genealogies, as many of the garments in the collection were donated by historic South County families.

When the group settled on the clothes for display, it took extreme care hanging and displaying the items to prevent damage or strain to the old fabrics, preserving them while presenting them in a timeline fashion that begins in 1895 and ends with present day clothing.

“We had to make sure none of the pieces were strained while we were doing the mounts,” Holm said. “We steamed them to remove any wrinkles and then dressed the mannequins to reflect the time periods.”

Ordoñez said the collection curators have kept a meticulous organizational system cataloging each of the 30,000 pieces in its historic collection, which helped move the process along. Selecting from among the hundreds of boxes lining shelves, the closets, drawers and moving storage units on the third floor of Quinn Hall, the group carefully chose items that were not only visually appealing, but also captured the history of the University.

Some of the pieces on display are accompanied by photographs of the students or professors who wore them, and each item is described in detail on small placards that give visitors a sense of the time period.

“The University began cataloging the collection in 1951 and it has kept up with it ever since,” Ordoñez said. “We have a card file from those early years we can cross reference with a paper file, and we’re able to locate items rather easily. They’ve done a great job keeping up the catalog over the decades.”

The exhibition will remain on display in the Quinn Hall Textile Gallery on the first floor from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Fridays until Dec. 22. It is free and open to the public.