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About Mount Mary's Historic Costume Collection

An inside look at the Historic Costume Collection

Mount Mary University’s Historic Costume Collection consists of approximately 10,000 garments and accessories as well as fashion art and periodicals. The collection includes garments, furs, shoes, hats, gloves, and other accessories ranging from the 18th century to the present. It features both couture and ready-to-wear garments from such fashion luminaries as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Norman Norell, Bonnie Cashin, Oscar de la Renta, Jean Patou, Karl Lagerfeld and more.

Maintained by the University’s Fashion Department, the Collection is the only such resource in the image: Historic Costume CollectionMilwaukee area. Many items are one-of-a kind and are museum quality, appropriate for both exhibition and research. This vast array of artifacts from internationally renowned designers serves multiple purposes.

Conceived 50 years ago by Sister Aloyse Hessburg, SSND, the first chairperson of the Mount Mary Fashion Department, the Collection is a teaching tool for the University’s fashion students, providing them a treasure trove of items that highlight various aspects of high-quality design and general clothing construction. Mount Mary fashion faculty use items from the Collection for classroom instruction to illustrate construction techniques, fabric selections, embellishments and other elements of fashion design. Students also use the collection for additional information, research or inspiration.

The Collection is also an important historical resource. Each garment reveals information about the period in which it was created, as well as the people who made it and wore it. Items from the Collection have been part of exhibitions at Ten Chimneys, The Museum of Wisconsin Art, the Pabst Mansion, the Wisconsin State Historical Society and other venues. The Collection includes garments from the closets of noted Wisconsin women including designer Florence Eiseman, chanteuse Hildegarde, actress Lynn Fontanne, Wisconsin First Ladies and more. Many items chronicle the history of the garment industry in Milwaukee, including notable manufacturers Reliable Knitting, Jack Winter, JH Collectibles and others.  

image: Historic Costume CollectionIn addition to its educational and historical significance, the Collection is also an important artistic and aesthetic resource. Members of the arts community can utilize the Collection for information and inspiration to help them authentically incorporate fashion into their own work.

Items in the Collection have been purchased through auction and obtained through gifts, including the Charles Kleibacker Collection of European and American designer garments amassed by the American designer and donated to Mount Mary in recognition of his long-time support of the Fashion Program. The Friends of Fashion, a group of individuals dedicated to the conservation of historic clothing and cultural artifacts, have also generously supported the preservation and growth of the Collection.

Moving forward, Mount Mary strives to increase awareness of this valuable Collection and the University’s Fashion Program, to protect these irreplaceable artifacts, to increase community and scholarly access to the Collection and to establish a permanent exhibition gallery to showcase the Collection to a wider audience.