Inside the Oris Glisson Historic Costume and Textile Collection
November 30, 2022
In 1969, the entire Oris Glisson Historic Costume and Textile Collection could fit in a tiny closet on the first floor of Wallace Hall.
Today, 53 years later, that closet is used as a space for cleaning and processing new donations. The collection now spans multiple rooms full of cabinets, clothing racks, and boxes containing over 5,000 pieces.
On one side of the collection space, long glass windows display curated clothing exhibitions in the building’s atrium, showcasing a tiny slice of the collection for students and visitors passing by. Meanwhile, in her office on the opposite side, Dina Smith-Glaviana is hard at work managing and expanding the collection.
“The collection does house a lot of history of this department, as well as this building,” said Smith-Glaviana, the director of the collection as well as an assistant professor in the Department of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management.
During her 30-year career at Virginia Tech, the eponymous Oris Glisson was key in shaping the department. She initially served as a professor of home economics, but in 1955, she became the first department head of what was then known as the Department of Clothing, Textiles, and Related Art.
Later on, in the mid-1960s, when Glisson helped design the facilities that would house her department in the newly constructed Wallace Hall, she made sure to include space for the collection of historic clothing and textiles that she’d been steadily building for over a decade.
“It was very informal at first,” said Smith-Glaviana. “Students would bring examples of historic clothing to class, and then they would leave them behind and donate them to the collection.”
After Glisson retired in 1978, the collection was named in her honor. Today, it still remains true to its local roots. Smith-Glaviana fields new donations primarily from Virginia Tech alumni and friends in the Southwest Virginia area, making it truly representative of what people at the university have worn throughout history.
“Our aim is to address the diversity of the people in our space,” said Smith-Glaviana. “The collection should really represent who they serve, the community.”
The Virginia Tech community has worn an impressive range of clothes over the years. Take a look around and you might find shoes, hats, undergarments, men’s jackets, bright dresses from the 1980s, lace from the 1900s, and a pair of jeans from the 1970s covered in colorful patches, to name only a few.
“The most interesting part of working with the collection is getting to see the huge variety of styles we have,” said Delaney Shields, a senior double majoring in marketing and fashion merchandising and design and one of Smith-Glaviana’s student employees. “I also think it’s really cool to see how well-preserved some of the oldest items in the collection can be.”
Shields’s favorite items to see are family heirlooms such as wedding dresses, because of the special history they bring with them.
When asked about her favorite pieces in the collection, Smith-Glaviana described a 19th-century indoor gown, also known as a “wrapper,” which looks formal to modern eyes but at the time would have been worn around the house, never in public. She likes how clearly the dress represents the strange fashions of the time.
“I call it the ‘dragon lady’ dress because it has a very pointy collar, and the brocade looks kind of like scales, and it’s a very garish color combination that’s typical of the late Victorian era,” she said. “It’s so ugly, it’s pretty.”
As director, Smith-Glaviana is in charge of a wide range of tasks involved in maintaining the collection. A typical day might involve communicating with donors, picking up donations, cleaning new pieces (including vacuuming them and putting them in a freezer to kill any germs or pests), labeling and recording information, or training the students who work with her to correctly handle and analyze the pieces.
But the largest task for Smith-Glaviana has been digitizing the collection. When she started her position as director in 2019, all of the information about each artifact was stored on a 3x5 index card—a very traditional method of record-keeping.
Through a partnership with University Libraries and with the help of the collection’s student employees, the cards were scanned and their text extracted into digital documents. The digital format is not only more user-friendly than the card catalog, but also capable of recording more of a piece’s story, such as who wore it and when.
The digitization project will also make it easier for the general public to view and search the collection online. Smith-Glaviana and her students are currently applying a new metadata system for describing and labeling garments, in an effort to make the collection more accessible to people outside of the field.
“Right now, there’s a lot of costume history-specific terminology that the layperson doesn’t know, so it’s very difficult for them to type in a search term and find something on a collection page,” she said.
Names of colors, for example, are constantly changing with the times—pieces might be labeled “orange blossom” or “chartreuse,” which makes them difficult to find in a search for a simple orange or green.
The solution is to limit the number of terms they can use to describe the pieces, so that the descriptions will be consistent across the collection and over time. With support from a University Libraries Collaborative Research Grant, they are using machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) algorithms to identify the best set of terms for the new system.
Smith-Glaviana’s goal is to make the digitized version of the collection available to the public, so that anyone interested in costume history, inside or outside of Virginia Tech, can access and use their data.
“I’ve enjoyed playing a small role in this huge project,” said Ruthie Foley, a senior fashion merchandising and design major and one of the student employees working on the digitization project. “It has furthered my interest in historic costume, and also showed me how computer science can relate to fashion.”
Video by Chase Parker for University Libraries
Even a person with no experience in the field of historic dress can easily find themselves enthralled by the fashions of the past—which makes the collection an important tool for community outreach.
Artifacts from the collection appear in displays to help spark public interest in costume history, such as the recent exhibit “The Twenties: Virginian Women’s Fashion After the Great War” at the Alexander Black House and Cultural Center in Blacksburg. Starting Dec. 2, the same gallery will host “Fashion History Moving Forward: From the Victorian Era to the Present,” an exhibition of new garments designed by Virginia Tech students and inspired by pieces from the collection.
However, the use of the collection goes far beyond display. For students and faculty in the department, it’s the focus of research in the areas of both collection practices and fashion history.
Smith-Glaviana teaches a course, Historic Costume and Textile Collections Management, in which fashion merchandising and design students can get a taste of her job managing the collection, from cleaning donations and keeping records to public outreach and exhibition design.
At the end of the spring 2022 semester, the students in the course worked in teams to assemble mini-exhibitions for the collection’s display windows, with themes like “Spring into Seventies,” “Botanical Beauties,” and “Hot Fun in the Summertime.”
In the fall 2022 semester, even more courses are using the collection for hands-on learning opportunities. Students in a textile evaluation lab are analyzing sweaters from the collection to determine the types of materials and knits used to make them. Meanwhile, students in a housing class are discussing Victorian-era garments in order to compare fashion and housing design from the same period.
Students who want a deeper look into costume history can also get involved in numerous research projects in the collection. In a recent effort supported by a Niles research grant from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Smith-Glaviana and her students performed detailed artifact analyses on the pieces Oris Glisson herself contributed to the collection. They examined each garment down to the smallest detail to glean information about its background and significance, combining their observations with media and records from the time period.
“Our idea is to use that research as a way of looking into best practices for collections,” said Smith-Glaviana.
In the more than 60 years since the founding of the collection, fashion has changed many times, and Virginia Tech has changed, too. The legacy of Oris Glisson is not only a curated history of clothing, but a time capsule of the university—and as Smith-Glaviana can tell you, the two things have plenty in common.
“Fashion can tell us about people, what they believed and how they lived,” she said. “It can tell you about the aesthetic tastes of the time. It can tell you about the technology and the materials that were available, and how they created things.”
That’s why Smith-Glaviana plans to keep growing and preserving the collection well into the years to come.
“We have so much rich history, and I definitely have dreams for expanding the collection,” she said. “And I have a lot of future plans that are secrets.”
Perhaps one day, 60 more years from now, we can look forward to the Oris Glisson Historic Costume and Textile Collection documenting the fashions of the future.
Written by Mary Crawford