The costume loft: Exploring one of Bethel's hidden gems
One of the most obscure and liminal spaces on Bethel’s campus is the props loft of the theater department. However, many theater students—with or without a Communication Arts major—have explored the depths of the loft, and have discovered one of the most interesting types of prop: costumes.
Between September and March of the 2020-2021 school year, Kaci Wilson, Bethel graduate from the class of 2020 and an aspiring medical student, took on the task of organizing the theater department's extensive costume stash.
“After I graduated, I was costuming for Karen, and I was very frustrated by the organization upstairs in the loft. And I just couldn’t find anything that I wanted, there were labels to things as to where they were supposed to go, but none of that stuff was actually in those categories. So I am a stress organizer and an enjoyment organizer, so I really enjoy putting things in order... I had a great time going through everything. It was fun, so it didn’t feel like work. Once I went through everything and saw what we had, I was better able to decide where everything should be placed,” Wilson said.
Because climate alters older clothing, Wilson had to sort out costumes that could not be maintained by the department.
“If there was benefit to keeping them, or if they could be repaired and putting the time into repairing it was worth it, then we kept them. We weeded out anything that couldn’t be used. So a lot of the time, if its hot in the loft because it's not climate controlled, the older stuff will start to fall apart. That's not fun to wear as an actor, it's not useful to have it taking up space. So we took out stuff that couldn’t be repaired and anything we have now is in good condition,” Wilson said.
As to where all of the costumes came from, quite a few were likely donated by community members based on their condition and the time period. Additionally, some costumes were specifically made for Bethel productions.
“Many of them were donated. I found some with tags that said, like ‘Mom’s blouse from 1909’ or things like that. And they’re very tiny. I found a lot that looked like they had been made when we were doing big production operas. Being a seamstress myself, I can sort of just tell when things were made specifically for us. A lot of our vintage pieces are very tiny, especially since a lot of them would have had more like undergarments as well. It’s kind of difficult to use them to costume actual humans most of the time, but what I recommend doing most of the time is to find one you like and then make a costume based on that one. But if you can fit them on a person, that’s even better,” Wilson said.
One of the oldest pieces that Bethel has maintained is a legitimate Old Order Mennonite bonnet that likely pre-dates the 1910s. The origin of it is unknown, but it is suspected that the bonnet and other items like it were found among a family member’s things and passed on to the college. Traditionally made bonnets and similarly specific pieces (like old Bethel graduation robes) are kept on the ground floor, where they can be kept climate controlled.
“On the ground level we have a lot of our vintage stuff that needs to be more climate controlled, so you’ll find our 1950s wedding dress and stuff like that here. Whereas everything 1970s and newer is upstairs because the polyester doesn’t need as much climate control. Then we also have our vintage military uniforms in here and our men’s hats, some of the things that need to be more delicately treated… There’s one uniform in here that looks exactly like my grandfather’s Vietnam uniform from the Navy, so that was really fun to find,” Wilson said.
With the vintage wedding dresses, it has been recommended that they not be worn haphazardly as they are some of the oldest ensemble items that Bethel has. These are used more for ideas if possible. Thanks to Wilson, there are now labels inside the doors of the closets and each closet section is color coded within a decade as productions typically have a sort of color theme.
“The 1950s are probably my favorite because that’s just my personal style, but then the 1920s things that I found that were legitimately from a hundred years ago were just really fun to touch. In the 1980s, a lot of styles started to come back, and so Bethel would incorporate them into their costumes. Me and my mom both have a lot of costuming experience, and we went through and we dated where we thought they would be most appropriate. So, if you’re ever costuming, and you can’t find something from the 1920s, look in the 80s. Pro tip,” Wilson said.
In addition to the ground floor closets, costumes are kept in the theater’s props loft, the location of which remains a mystery for most of the campus.
“Anything 1960s and newer, in addition to “old costumes” made during modern times are kept in the props loft. A lot of the 60s and 70s costumes were contemporary when they were added to the collection, so they’ve aged regularly. The main floor of the props loft houses women’s, 1960s-modern. The upstairs portion of the props loft houses the shoes, hats, uniforms, and a men’s wing. The 70s section is huge. It’s the biggest section. There’s also a pretty big 80s prom dress section,” Wilson said.
The past couple of productions have had manageable, modern costumes outfitted for them. The last time any of these costumes really could have been used was during the 2018 Fall Festival production of Little Women, but costume storage was not organized, even though many of Bethel’s costumes could have been used.
What Bethel does have in vast supply are vintage hats.
“We have a hat that’s literally a hundred years old… it’s a genuine 1920s cloche hat that you would see a flapper wear. And if you look inside, you can really tell because a lot of items past the 1940s don’t typically have tags that say ‘Made in Germany,’ like this one. Because of the World War. So style, wear, and context clues really helped date this hat,” Wilson said.
Like the other sections, the hats are also organized by decade and by color and they range from 1900 to the 1960s. They also happen to be Kaci Wilson’s favorite section.
“I love all the hats. I just had too much fun finding all these, I would try them all on and take pictures in them. It was really a blast to be up here. I felt very honored to be able to touch all of this stuff that is just… people wore these for real too, for all sorts of life events,” Wilson said.