More than “Women’s Work:” Two Dress Collections on Cornell’s Campus
The professionalization of anthropology and home economics in the early twentieth century led American colleges and universities to develop new departments that explored the production and consumption of clothing and textiles within and outside of the Western hemisphere. This newfound interest in dress- and textile-related artifacts led to the formation of teaching collections. At Cornell, Professor Beulah Blackmore and Mrs. Ruth Sharp were some of the first individuals to donate dress collections to the Department of Clothing and Textiles and the Department of Anthropology. In 1915, Blackmore was hired by Martha van Rensselaer, founder of the College of Human Ecology, to develop curriculum within the areas of clothing and textile design. She later became a full Professor in 1923. Sharp’s husband, Lauriston Sharp, on the other hand, was hired as the first appointment in Anthropology at Cornell in 1936 and was a founding member in the newly formed Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 1939. Sharp held a teaching position at the Boston Country Day School prior to her marriage, but never officially worked for Cornell, although she did provide her knowledge, expertise, and labor to both the Anthropology Department and Southeast Asia Program in her role as a faculty spouse. Both women were thus well equipped to develop collections of dress- and textile-related artifacts on Cornell’s campus. Critical readings of university dress collections tend to emphasize the challenges faculty face in gaining support for the collection, use, and conservation of clothing and textiles. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, lingering prejudices against fashion in the academy also led the curation and conservation of clothing to be perceived as “woman’s work,” unworthy of scholarly attention. However, Blackmore and Sharp worked with other faculty, staff, students or professionals to collect, document, and circulate ethnological dress on Cornell’s campus. Their involvement in the formation of both departments points to the ways in which Blackmore and Sharp’s collecting practices influenced the integration of ethnological dress- and textiles-related artifacts within departmental curriculum, projects, publications, and exhibitions.
In 1915, Blackmore began teaching courses within the areas of clothing and textile design at Cornell. By 1925, she became the first department head of the newly formed Clothing and Textiles Department. While developing the department’s curriculum, she recognized the need for students to access garments, textiles, and accessories in order for them to gather information and inspiration. Prior to her trip around the world in 1936, Blackmore largely relied on the collections of other professionals, faculty members, and students on and around Cornell’s campus. Initially, she worked with the art collector, Helen Jewett, who owned and operated The Little Bungalow Shop in Cortland, N.Y. Throughout the interwar period, Jewett gave several talks on Cornell’s campus related to ancient textiles and ethnological dress. Blackmore also took her students up to Cortland to view Jewett’s vast collection of textiles in 1935. Blackmore’s collaboration with Jewett eventually led her to donate artifacts from her personal collection of Central European and Asian clothing and textiles to Cornell in 1953. Following her retirement in 1951, Blackmore expressed the extent to which Jewett’s collection had served as a “constant source of inspiration and delight to both the staff and the students” on Cornell’s campus. Blackmore also collaborated with other faculty in the department. Throughout the 1930s, Blackmore worked with Professor Margaret Humphrey who traveled extensively throughout Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and collected examples of European peasant dress, including the Moravian kroj she later donated to the collection.
In addition to working with those dress collections assembled by other faculty and professionals, Blackmore collaborated with several students who had either traveled or lived abroad. For instance, Olivia Pei-Heng Wu ‘39, a graduate student at Cornell from Peiping, China, lent Blackmore several garments from her personal wardrobe for the 1938 showcase, "Costumes of Many Lands," one of which she donated to the collection in 1939. Several years later, Wu's qipao was used by Jean Allanson ‘45 as a source of inspiration for her final project in Textiles and Clothing 400. As seen in the photograph, Allanson was inspired by the round collar and asymmetrical closure that is characteristic of the qipao. Blackmore’s collaborations with professionals, faculty, and students thus demonstrate her sustained interest in collecting, documenting, and exhibiting ethnological dress on Cornell’s campus, as well as the networks she formed in order to provide her students with primary materials for design research and instruction.
Ruth Burdick Sharp arrived at Cornell with her husband, Lauriston Sharp, when he was hired as the university’s first anthropology faculty appointment. As the wife of a faculty member, Sharp was active in the Cornell community, notably with the Campus Club, which supported women on Cornell’s campus, and with international students, especially those from Thailand. Sharp collected textiles, clothing, and ceramics when she was in Thailand accompanying Lauriston Sharp on anthropological fieldwork projects, starting in the late 1940s. Through her fieldwork experience, alongside additional research, she gained expertise on Southeast Asian pottery. Sharp likely acquired the collection that she donated to the Anthropology department during the Bennington-Cornell Survey of the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand, which was conducted in 1963-64.The survey focused on documenting tribal peoples and ethnic minorities who resided in the forested hill regions of Northern Thailand. Although focused only on Thailand, these communities also live in other areas of Southeast Asia including Laos, Myanmar, and China and in diasporic communities across the world. The survey project, which was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development, was meant to add to the sparse literature on these communities and coincided with increased U.S. presence in the area.The project also aimed to aid the integration of these Indigenous communities into the larger Thai nation, supporting Thai government interests and aligning with the nation’s cold war strategies in Southeast Asia. While in Thailand for the Bennington-Cornell Survey, Sharp could not travel as freely throughout the region as her male counterparts, and so acquired some of her collection through her interactions with American and British missionaries stationed in the region. She also formed connections with other Westerners, including Peace Corps volunteers, and worked with these individuals on projects regarding tribal arts and crafts markets.
Sharp’s collection was not part of the official scope of the fieldwork project, which focused on development in Northern Thailand and the integration of tribal members into the Thai nation; however, she did author a small number of essays that connect her collecting interests with the project’s developmental goals and were published in edited reports documenting the project. Additionally, her input was valued. According to a Cornell Annual Report, Sharp’s contribution to the fieldwork focused on the modifications and changes to folk art practices in the region. Therefore, she found ways to integrate her collecting practices into the larger anthropological project, even if they might not have been understood as integral to the project itself, by others. In addition, Ruth, and her collection, provide information about the construction of anthropological knowledge and Cornell’s anthropology department by her positioning within the periphery of the anthropological project.
Clothing and Textiles
Clothing class visits Cortland. (January 18, 1935). The Cornell Daily Sun, 55(85), 5.
Hanks, L. M. (1965). The Lahu Shi Hopoe: The birth of a new culture? In L.M. Hanks, J.R. Hanks, and L. Sharp (Eds.), Ethnographic notes on northern Thailand (pp. 72- 83). Ithaca, N. Y., Southeast Asia Program, Dept. of Asian Studies, Cornell University.
Hanks, L.M., Hanks, J.R., & Sharp L. (Eds.). (1965). Ethnographic notes on northern Thailand. Ithaca, N. Y., Southeast Asia Program, Dept. of Asian Studies, Cornell University.
Letter to Mrs. Helen Powell Smith and Mrs. Elise Frost McMurry from Professor Beulah Blackmore, December 3, 1952. Helen Jewett Correspondence, 1952-1953, Folder 31, Box 11, Cornell University Department of Textiles and Apparel Records #23-19-2807, Cornell Rare and Manuscript Collection, Ithaca, New York.
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Sharp, R. B. (1965). It’s expensive to be a Yao. In L.M. Hanks (Ed.), Ethnographic notes on northern Thailand (pp. 36-39). Ithaca, N. Y., Southeast Asia Program, Dept. of Asian Studies, Cornell University.
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Textiles will be shown by Miss Helen Jewett. (April 2, 1937). The Cornell Daily Sun, 57(135), 5.