I had heard about Karan Feder's work as clothing and costume preservationist before I met her last September. When our paths finally did cross, it was because my mother was moving to a Senior Living establishment and the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas was interested in some of her and my late dad's vintage clothing (my mother had outfits dating back to the late 1960s/early 1970s).
Karan has long been interested in preserving clothing but the classic Las Vegas era from the 1950s-1980s with its entertainers, showroom production numbers and the way that people used to dress to see a show, is of special interest to her.
We had a great time talking about the challenges of preserving clothing and costumes:
CLV Blog: How did you become interested in preserving clothing and what makes clothing an important part of history?
Feder: The bulk of my professional background is in costume design and fashion design. The foundation for both fields is built on the study of the history of dress. The varying physical silhouettes of dress throughout the ages are definitely a fascinating science, but even more interesting are the reasons behind the variations. Culture and fashion are connected at the hip. With every new fashionable mutation, there is an intriguing story that serves to define the wearer's society, philosophy, sophistication, morality, economic status, etc.
Costume & textiles are often not afforded the value of study and preservation as are other collections within a traditional museum. Who would argue against preserving a beautiful 20th century oil painting, but a 20th century pantsuit? We put on clothes every day, wash our clothes and buy and dispose of clothing on a regular basis. Our culture has made clothing ubiquitous, easy to obtain and thus our relationship with it has been changed. We don't necessarily regard dress as artifact. By and large, current culture isn't contemplating the beauty of the pantsuit or the expert skills required to manufacture it, the occasion on which it was worn and by whom.
CLV Blog: What is the most interesting historical object you have found and why?
Feder: In my work with the costume & textile collection at the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, I ran across an unusual men's silk tie. It is quite short, wide and features a textile print that lead to me to date it from the in the 1930s. But it was oddly shaped and not symmetrical. There is a manufacturer/brand label sewn at center-back which includes the model name, Slip Scarf, and a series of U.S. Patent numbers. Why would a necktie be granted a patent, not to mention three of them? Further research reveals that for a few "moments," in the late 1910s, this deviant men's neck tie was a fashion fad for the wealthy collegiate set to "stick-it" to the establishment-as it were.
Similar to the 1960s fad of cutting off the legs of your perfectly nice blue jeans to make short pants or the more current trend to purchase new pants with holes intentionally included. The Slip Scarf was popular enough that the Sears catalog offered a knockoff version of the original in the early 1920s.
The Slip Scarf is fascinating to me because it represents such a brief, obscure and easily forgotten moment in time.
Another artifact of great interest to me is a one-of-a-kind Vegas stage costume donated to the museum. This is a large costume, as much sculpture as costume, measuring 4 feet long, 2 feet wide and 5 feet tall.
The costume is fashioned to resemble a paddlewheel boat.
Towering above the boat-portion, a marquee reads "Show Boat." There is a small handle crank on the right side of the costume that would have connected to the rear paddlewheel mechanism to create a realistic paddlewheel spin.
The donation included a few additional boxes of parts, pieces and accessories that were said to go with the costume. It was easy enough to identify the matching cap, bowtie, cuffs and panties found in the parts & pieces boxes, but what to do with the included various lengths of pleated, sequined and ruffled trim pieces?
Conservation and research continues, but with the help of the local entertainment community, the costume is now identified from the Vegas stage show Hallelujah Hollywood which ran from 1974-1980 at the MGM Grand. The show's costumes were designed by Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan with our unique step-in costume built for use in the grand finale production number. Hallelujah Hollywood's finale was a tribute to classic MGM musical films with our costume paying homage to the 1951 Technicolor film Show Boat.
Again, with help from the community, I was able to locate Bob Mackie's original costume sketch and view a video recording of the stage show from 1980. Further community outreach lead me to two performers who called this costume their own during the run of Hallelujah Hollywood. One of these women has since visited the museum to see her "old" Show Boat costume and shared valuable memories of its use.
Although the Show Boat costume is categorized as a "step-in" costume, getting into the costume was less about stepping and more about aiming. She explained that, as the costume was so oversized and cumbersome, it was stored, in suspension, in the theater wings so that it could easily be lowered onto her shoulders for the performance and after the number, lifted back up off her body, and into suspended storage.
The Hallelujah Hollywood finale costume is unique, wonderful and designed by one of the most renowned and successful costume designers of our time. The donation is special because it has afforded us the opportunity to directly reach out to the community and further document this small piece of our Vegas stage legacy.
CLV Blog: Can you talk a bit about your dedication to preserving Las Vegas history and your work at the Museum.
Feder: I am the Volunteer Curator of Costume & Textiles at the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. The museum's collection features 19th through 21st century American and European garments, shoes, fashion accessories, iconic stage and entertainment costume and American textiles. The museum’s permanent and study collections offer scholars interested in material culture an excellent opportunity for research and professional development.
I've committed my time and expertise, free of charge, because I consider the museum's costume & textile collection deserving of consistent attention, study and exhibition.
In coordination and consultation with the Curator of Collections, my responsibilities are exclusively with the organization, care, storage, research, exhibition, promotion and movement of artifacts in the museum's costume & textile collection.
CLV Blog: What's the future of preservation of this history in Las Vegas?
Feder: Las Vegas is such an unusual city. We survive, here in the desert, by selling the newest, best and next-biggest-thing to the rest of the world. Of course this concept is in direct contrast to historic preservation, but with age, Las Vegas will become wiser concerning the value of its heritage.
CLV Blog: What's the biggest obstacle to overcome in preserving Las Vegas history and why.
Feder: I am especially concerned with the preservation of the iconic entertainment costume that adorns our Las Vegas stages. Often when a show closes, a number of the costumes will "walk out the door" with the balance sold off en masse to the rental industry. Or the show could be stuffed into a small back storage closet and forgotten until the facility decides they need that closet to store something else and the costumes become a nuisance and ultimately "disappear." I hope to communicate to the entertainment community that the museum values these works of art. Costume donations to the museum will serve to establish both the show and the city's stage heritage.
CLV Blog: Why is history and preservation work important to Las Vegas residents?
Feder: With reference, again, to entertainment costume, I would venture that quite a few of our neighbors are proud owners of Vegas stage costumes. These collectors are positioned to become proud museum donors serving their community and preserving the unique Las Vegas stage legacy.
Remember, History is what binds us to our community!
Thanks again to Karan Feder for sharing her thoughts about an aspect of historic preservation that isn't as well known as architecutre and signage but, given our entertainment history in the 20th century, just as important!
Visit the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas at the Springs Preserve!
On Saturday, our final interview with Clay Heximer, historian of Paradise Palms, finishes our month long series on local historians and preservationists you should know!