Tucked away on the second floor of the Applied Technology Building is the Beeman Historic Costume Collection, a trove of tailored suits, military uniforms, feathered hats, ball gowns and other garments that tells the history of fashion.

Students Lindsey May and Stevie Jarrett work on an assignment to re-create a woman’s blouse.

Students Lindsey May (left) and Stevie Jarrett work on an assignment to re-create a woman’s blouse for the project, which is being funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Photo by Domenic Centofanti)

This academic year, 15 items of World War II-era clothing from the collection are undergoing a 21st-century alteration, thanks to Ball State’s Diana Saiki and Valerie Birk.

With a digital humanities grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the veteran educators are leading students in developing a website that will feature 3-D models of the garments accessible to researchers and educators nationwide.

“We applied for the NEH grant four times, so to finally receive it was incredibly validating,” said Birk, an instructor who teaches apparel design in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS). “So many of the items in the Beeman Collection we don’t have the space or resources to display, so this is an excellent way to bring them into the limelight and introduce them to a broader audience.”

Using a technique called photogrammetry, which generates 3-D information from photographs and measurements, FCS students will help turn hundreds of images of the 15 garments into 3-D models that will be featured on the website when it launches next summer, said Saiki, an associate professor whose expertise includes the study of historical clothing.

Students Yiman Zhang (left) and Olivia Cash work on a women’s garment for the digitization project.

Students Yiman Zhang (left) and Olivia Cash work on a women’s garment for the digitization project. (Photo by Domenic Centofanti)

Background information about the garments also will be shared, including details about the items’ donors, other fashion trends of the era and downloadable patterns being constructed this fall by students in Birk’s flat pattern class, a course required for all apparel design majors.

Students weave vintage garments into own designs

Levi Portillo, a junior who is double-majoring in apparel design and fashion merchandising, is one of Birk’s students. His group is responsible for creating a pattern from one of the dresses selected for the project, a ’40s-era frock covered in tiny pastel flowers.

Fingering the delicate pleating covering its bodice, the Indianapolis resident said, “The details of this dress are so intricate, it’s going to be nearly impossible to re-create, but that’s part of the challenge. … It’s exciting seeing how designers in the past made things. When you start inspecting the pieces in this collection, you realize how much work went into them.”

The goal of Birk’s flat pattern class is to teach students how to deconstruct garments, a skill that informs their own fashion designs.

Junior Olivia Cash is glad the items they’re creating patterns from date to the ’40s and ’50s. “The style at that time fits so well with my personality.”

Of the website, she said, “I think it’s a chance for our department to pay it forward and help other universities and students.”

Project distinctive in higher ed

Birk and Saiki said creating the website is a chance for Ball State’s fashion program to stand out at a national level. While some museums have begun using 3-D scanning to digitize their costume collections, the trend has yet to make its way to colleges and universities.

Apparel design instructor Valerie Birk and Diana Saiki, an associate professor whose expertise includes the study of historical clothing, examine historical garments.

Apparel design instructor Valerie Birk (left) and Diana Saiki, an associate professor whose expertise includes the study of historical clothing, spent last summer selecting which garments from the thousands in the Beeman collection to include in the project. (Photo by Gail Werner)

It’s that kind of distinction that made the project so appealing to junior Ashlan Moore, a LaPorte, Indiana, native also double-majoring in apparel design and fashion merchandising.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how everything turns out. This is something that’s never been done by our department before, and using the (NEH) grant for a project like this is not only innovative, it’s a great opportunity for us students.”

The photogrammetry phase of the project will get underway this spring, with work on the website to be completed next summer with help from Digital Corps students.

Birk said she and Saiki would love to then apply for a second grant. “Our goal is to get 50 pieces online. For now, we’re taking it one at a time.”

About the Beeman collection

The Beeman Historic Costume Collection contains more than 3,000 pieces of men’s and women’s apparel dating to the 1700s. The grouping began in the 1930s, when the Frank C. Ball family presented Mary Beeman, head of what was then the Department of Home Economics, with a steamer trunk full of garments.