Thousands of historic items held right under our nose at NDSU

The Emily P. Reynolds Historic Costume Collection amazes

Late 1800’s dresses that were colored before the creation of chemical dyes

The Emily P. Reynold’s Historic Costume Collection (ERHCC) stuns with over 5,000 pieces to date.

The collection is located on the fourth level of the Family Life Center, Susan Curtis the collections manager so kindly agreed to give me a personal tour. I was lucky enough to see what treasures NDSU keep behind the closed door of the temperature/humidity controlled room.

One cannot help but be awestruck when walking in to view the Costume Collection for the first time. The vast impressive array of clothing, shoes, hats, purses, and accessories are all on display for the eye to see. The collection totaling over 5,000 pieces in its care, spans from pieces as early as the 1800’s to as recent as the 1980’s.

We can all thank the founder of the collection Emily P. Reynolds, for starting the collection back in 1948. From that time on until 1981 she was an active faculty member of the textiles and clothing department at NDSU. During her career in 1966, she became the department chair.

At first, the collection was used to show student’s in the discipline prime examples of historic dress, to help aid them in their studies. During that time, the Costume Collection began receiving donations from prominent figures in ND’s history a long with student’s and their respective families.

You may ask yourself, what exactly is a costume?

I’m not referring to things you can purchase for halloween to wear to a party that night but, a mode of dress that was specific to a culture, time period, nation, or social class. (Defined by the New York Public Library)

With that definition in mind, it’s a lot easier to view the Emily P. Reynolds Costume Collection as one, that holds vast cultural/historical significance.

The first thing the viewer can take in when walking behind the door of the Costume Collection for the first time is shelves, teeming with a wide array of hats from all from different periods.

The starkest of contrasts may be the fragile quilted black bonnet (handmade) from the early 1800’s sitting near a hat from the 1960’s. The 1960’s bulb shapes hat pleasantly contrasts the dark bonnet with bright colors splashed a long the print blatantly giving the air of revolution (It was the 60’s after all).

Susan began the tour with manually opening the collection by wheeling the bright white shelves open. *The shelves run the length of the room and move a long multiple metal tracks set into the floor controlled by a wheel.*

Slowly with every rotation of the wheel gliding on the metal track the collection of shoes appeared. Beyond that, the first peek of the clothing.

The first thing the collection manager highlights was as anybody can say with apparent glee, the shoes.

It was like time traveling simultaneously, through the 1800’s to the present.

The first pair I noticed was shoes from the beginnings of the 1900’s. Narrow pointed and brown with a small heel I thought to myself, how could one’s foot actually fit into them. Time’s have changed, clearly.

Susan states that the “collection used to be held on cast off department store racks but, through the help of the dean, donors, and alumni the foundation was able to renovate one of the rooms and, make better use of the space for further preservation of the clothing.”

I found myself in the midst of life sized examples of what the past was like. Not from the reflection of old photo’s but by looking at physical items of dress. The fashion held in this collection are prime examples of what defined decades and generations of society and culture.

Focuses can shift and the Costume Collection has changed from “items showing specific areas of fashion to a shift in trying to preserve the cultural heritage of the state and region, through the clothing and textiles they wore.”

We preceded by moving from the oldest pieces in the collection to the most recent.

From dresses to petticoats in the 1800’s. “Women at the time had to visit dress makers shops and have clothes made to their own individual shape, these dresses were colored using vegetable dyes since chemical dyes were actually not invented yet.”

The collection is filled with delicate lace dresses, silk bottoms, brightly printed pieces from the 60’s and 70’s, evening gowns from the 30’s, and even the sequence glam of the 80’s. This list only begins to cover what the collection has.

With as formal as a variety of wedding gowns, (interestingly enough I learned with examples in the collection that navy blue wedding dresses were a popular trend in the 1930’s).

The Emily P. Reynolds Collection even has an array of items purchases bought in other countries by their donors. For example, there is a 1950’s ruby red dress in inventory, originally bought in Paris.

When gazing at costume’s one can receive a glimpse of society. Through dress, we can understand what people’s everyday lives were like and by viewing this collection we can begin to conceptualize the idea of how society’s thoughts and ideas have changed and continues to, with the ever present constant of the ticking of time.

Notable items in the collection belong to some of the first ladies of North Dakota, members of the Burgum family, and an actress whose dresses (from years ago) were once worn on Hollywood’s red carpet.

Also, to the families where the bulk of collection lies. Who, Susan likes to add, “generously donated their families clothes for preservation.” It’s because of donations like this that make the collection an all-encompassing historical timeline.

Think of this, the clothes you put on do you wear them because you like the style, color, or simply the message they may send? Or, is it a reflection of you and how you see yourself?

Next time you see yourself gazing at an old photo take a second to think of all the treasures held behind the door of the Emily P. Reynolds Historic Costume Collection and what it means for this to be, at our very own, NDSU.

The collection is donation only and often loans items to Bonanzaville a long with exhibits held at the Hjemkomst Center. 

Collections Manager: Susan Curtis
Curator: Dr. Ann Braten

More information about the collection and contact information can be found at the collection’s website:

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