Tonawanda News

July 2, 2012

Historical society exhibit features clothing from bygone era

By Danielle Haynes,
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — CITY OF TONAWANDA ­— For the Historical Society of the Tonawandas and Buffalo State College student Ben Streeter, it was a match made in heaven. 

Streeter, a theater major with a focus on costuming, wanted a summer fellowship funded by the school researching old garments; meanwhile, the historical society desperately needed its historic clothing collection of about 2,000 items cataloged and sorted. Luckily, the young Tonawanda native picked up the phone and gave the organization a call.

“For the last 10 years or so, I’ve been seeing the clothing collection and saying, ‘Wow we need somebody who really understands this stuff,’ ” said Ned Schimminger of the historical society. “I’m thrilled that (Streeter’s) working on it cause he’s got the enthusiasm for it. For about 10 or 15 years we haven’t had a person specifically interested in (clothing).”

With Streeter’s arrival at the historical society, a plan was hatched to include three garments in an exhibit of paintings by Edward Mayes at the City of Tonawanda Public Library. The paintings, mostly created in the 1960s to 80s, are based on historic photographs of the Twin Cities from about the 1870s to the 1910s, Schimminger said. 

The garments were handpicked from the same era.

“They’re authentic garments with only a little bit of conservation done with the materials,” Streeter said. “What you’re seeing is what would’ve been worn for everyday purposes.”

Unfortunately though, Streeter and the historical society have specific information on who wore only one of the three garments in the exhibit.

Schimminger said much of the first-hand knowledge of the society’s clothing collection died with the organization’s founder, Willard Ditmar. Some items had tags attached indicating who certain garments belonged to, but for about 90 percent of the collection, not much is known.

In some cases, Streeter said he had to do extensive research to figure out exactly when some of the items would have been worn.

“There’s a lot of research that goes into this,” he said. “For example, you know that you have a mid-1880s outfit because of the very large bustle ... in the 1860s by the large hoop skirts, how the sleeves are draped.”

Streeter said judging the age of a garment by the fabric used is often inconclusive because going back through the years, “it was very common to recut the fabric panels into being more contemporary pieces.”

Even without the complete picture of who wore certain items, Schimminger said, “the importance of the clothing collection is to help us understand how people lived at the time.”

Glenn Luba, director of the City of Tonawanda Library, said he’s excited by the relationship between the library and the historical society and hopes to continue it beyond when the exhibit ends in mid September,

“It’s a complementary relationship,” he said. “People can come in here and instead of just seeing our collection, it gives them another dimension to the library, plus it brings a different kind of atmosphere to the library that wasn’t possible without the art on the wall and the costumes.”

Streeter and Schimminger said they both envision a more extensive exhibit of the historical society’s garment holdings in the future.

“In our longterm plans, we might be able to do a much larger show, pulling out 20 to 25 pieces,” Schimminger said.

Streeter said he hopes to continue his work beyond the summer and sees it as an opportunity to test drive his ideal career.

“My goal is to get to Europe and to study at the schools there and to be a historian or a curator for costume collections, so this is right up my alley,” Streeter said. “That’s one of the really great things that I found at Buffalo State. If you want to do something and you’re really serious about it, you can find access to the tools you need to accomplish that.”

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.