Developing a Costume Collection

Inez Brooks-Myers
Curator of Costume and Textiles, Oakland Museum of California

Presentation Slides

The Oakland Museum of California, is that, the Museum of California. Our collections focus on California, her land and her people.

When I began working at the Oakland Museum of California thirty-six years ago, Tom Frye was the Chief Curator. He challenged me to develop a collection that would reflect California. It wasn't as easy as it sounds because our collecting was passive; no money limited collecting to gifts that would be offered to us. I felt like a trap-door spider, waiting for something I could pounce on.

In 1984 we redid our twentieth-century gallery and that's when some funds were found to buy things I had been eyeing for years. I contacted Alexandra Jacopetti who had written Native Funk and Flash, bought the cover girl of that publication plus several other pieces from her book.

With those few pieces in the collections other artists began offering the museum things. Good things began to happen, from time to time various help groups within the museum, especially our Women's Board, or our History Guild, or individual docents would suggest that I find things that they could buy for the collections. The bad thing was that there was no pattern, no steady gift once a quarter or even once a year.

Bit by bit, I was able to fulfill my plan building the California collection, adding the Hippie styles and the art-to-wear that one would expect from the San Francisco Bay Area. I was also able to acquire pieces of real work clothing from companies in Northern and Southern California.

Oakland is an extremely diverse community. Creating a cultural and ethnic diversity in the collection was the most difficult task; and that is ongoing. As in so many museums, well-to-do white ladies see the value in clothing as material culture and know how to draw these artifacts to the attention of a curator. Other cultural groups place similar value on garments, but often are not familiar with the avenues that bring such things into a museum collection. That's why it is important to engage the community. We have created an  Asian Pacific Advisory Council, an African American Advisory Council, a Native American Advisory Council, and a Latino Advisory Council, through which I was able to acquire a quinceañera dress, with the photographs, the invitation, everything.

Right now I am anxious to collect more pieces from the youth of our state: surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, school, work. We have a Photo Mate pantsuit. The fact that I call it a pantsuit clues you in to its age; it is over twenty-five years old. 

I'll confess that I wish we had the sportswear reflecting the industry of Southern California, the way the Los Angeles County Museum of Art does—Louella Ballerino, De De Johnson, Cole of California, or the depth of the Gernreich collection that the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising has in Los Angeles. But I know where those things are and we have loaned and borrowed to and from each other. What are friends for? Many politically sensitive pieces are unique to our museum collection.

To build a collection you need a focus—because you really shouldn't collect everything—institutional  support, a bit of money, and lots of time.


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