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Vol. 9, No. 3
June/July 2006

  >>   On the Waterfront
  >>   Land's End
  >>   Diamond's Edge

Material Culture 

by Julia Steele
photos by Brad Goda

Curator Carol D'Angelo holds a red satin

Eisenhower-era party dress.

Miller Hall is one of the more nondescript buildings on the University of Hawai‘i Manoa campus: A stalwart three-storey box, it’s sandwiched between the modernist lines of the art department and the Greek Revival-style of Hawaii Hall. But while Miller itself may not be much to look at from the outside, on the inside it is home to masterpieces of form and function: some 17,000 items of fashion pulled together to create the university’s celebrated costume collection.

The collection is tucked away on the building’s third floor, stored in rickety metal cabinets and file cabinet-ish trays that give no clue to the wonders they conceal. Open them and treasures emerge: here a whalebone corset, there a pair of disco-era purple velvet clogs, here an intricately embroidered Chinese robe, there a pink mu‘umu‘u, here a lipstick red ’50s party dress, there a gilded sari. It’s your mother’s closet gone on a wild global spree. There are pieces from all over Asia, numerous items from Hawai‘i, many from Europe and North America: The UH collection is considered one of the best in the country. There are haute couture lace-up boots straight from nineteenth-century New York (think The Age of Innocence) and multihued leather peasant boots from Uzbekistan that date from the same period (think Dr. Zhivago two steps removed). One minute, looking at a fluorescent Primo Beer aloha shirt from the ’60s, you feel like you’re in Goodwill; the next, looking at an exquisite subtly colored silk kimono, you feel like you’re in the Smithsonian.

I tour the collection with Professor Carol D’Angelo, its curator. Carol is obviously blessed with a snappy fashion sense herself: The day I meet her she’s wearing a BCBG top, a Diesel skirt and sequined shoes; her curly auburn hair is piled up in a tousled chignon. The effervescent smile she wears is a timeless classic.

We look at the most prized piece in the collection, a cerulean-and-orange silk robe, embroidered in gold, which was given to a member of Commodore Perry’s party when Perry’s ships visited Japan in 1854. Though the robe is almost 200 years old, its color is rich and vibrant; the intricate gold stitching, impeccable still, depicts plum and pine trees and bamboo, ancient emblems of longevity, integrity and fidelity. It’s impossible, looking at a piece like this, not to wonder at the lives of the artists who created it—the people who spun and dyed the silk, the people who stitched the threads—not to wonder where they lived, who they loved, what they dreamed of. This robe is a reminder of what fashion does at its best: sparks imagination, feeds fantasy, makes us wonder at far more than fabric. True fashion is art, alive with creativity and ingenuity, which elevates mere bodily coverings into a realm beyond.

Carol keeps opening drawers and cupboards, proving this point. We look at Chinese silk gowns from the 1800s, covered in the most exacting embroidery I’ve ever seen, hundreds of thousands of stitches that create dragons and phoenixes and flowers and clouds and trees, all of it precise and animated. “Worn for a wedding,” indicates one of the tags; “for a man,” reads another; “for an older Han woman.” Again that question: Who made these? The terseness of the tags is sad proof that the answers are lost. But whoever they were, they had fantastic style—nothing but the gowns is needed to prove that.