Costume Historian, FIDM Instructor,
and author Anna Lee Binder has played a large role at the Oakland Museum of
California’s History Collection.
Interviewer: Let's talk about your more than 20 years of working with the Oakland
Museum of California and some of the garments you’ve created there. But, first, will you
share a bit about your history and education?
What were some of the influential moments that started you on this path?
Anna Lee Binder (ALB): Oh, yes, my love affair with
textiles! Even now, I can envision the
sewing classroom in my junior high school, with fabric samples along the top of
the room, each named—like in a chemistry lab—to aid in learning the table of
began sewing at the age of five, taking apart various articles of clothing and making
them into hand-sewn doll clothes. After
World War II, when fabric was scarce, I made doll clothes from printed feed
sacks, bought with money earned from babysitting. In both junior and high
schools, I started making most of the clothing for my sister and myself. Then,
I had the good fortune of working on sewing machines, an old treadle in junior
high and a featherweight (a gift from my beloved parents) in high school. Skills in sewing were certainly critical in
sending me down this path. But, there were other formative moments. For
example, I used to watch my father (a carpenter) when he was in the garage,
measuring wood. It was a magical place and time for me: that garage, his intensely focused mind, the
smell of sawdust, and the anticipation of his knowledge becoming mine.
What were some of the formative moments
in your later education? Is there one
moment that you consider a pivotal point in your career?
ALB: My desire to learn and to attend
college, and maybe even graduate school, was always deep within me. The first
to go to college in my family, I applied for a scholarship from my dad’s
Carpenters’ Union and was surprised (and thrilled!) when I was awarded it. Consequently,
I was able to attend San Jose State University and finished with a B.A. in
Textiles and Clothing. After raising a
family and owning a fabric store, I did a Master of Arts program at California
State University/Long Beach. For my thesis project, my advisor wanted me to
work on a study of environmental factors and laundry soap. When I called my daughter, who was in her own
academic program, and conveyed this information, she said: “Oh, Mom, how can I tell my friends that you
are getting a Master of Arts in laundry detergents!” (Remember, this was before our current
environmental movement.) The next day,
another professor told me she received a call from Costume Historian Edward
Maeder, Curator of Costumes and Textiles at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of
Art), looking for Research Assistants. I interviewed the next week. When he
asked, “What do you know about hats?” I responded, “Nothing,” to which he
replied, “Good!” So began the next stage
of my career, researching 18th century hats for the exhibition’s catalogue. This, in turn, led to my association with the
Costume Society of America, at both the regional and national levels. In
addition, because of my work with Mr. Maeder, one of the many costume and/or
textile historians I was fortunate enough to meet was Inez Brooks-Myers, Curator
of Costume and Textiles at the Oakland Museum.
Interviewer: In your more than 20 years of working with
the Oakland Museum of California you have made countless garments for a variety
of exhibitions and installations. What were some memorable garments?
ALB: For the Hollywood Exhibit, I installed
several actors’ garments including the Marilyn Monroe dress, Zorro’s outfit,
and Brad Pitt’s suit from Ocean’s Eleven. For the California Gold Rush Exhibit, I made
an 1849 day dress suitable for mining. I’ve also made garments for children to
try on for the Trading Traditions Exhibit (e.g., a Chinese Mandarin coat,
Japanese Hippari, Mexican skirt and blouse, Afghani coat and Afghani Nomad
dress, Indian Sari, African Dashiki, and Guatemalan blouse and skirt).
Interviewer: I recently visited the museum’s permanent
California History Exhibit. You have several pieces in this permanent collection. What's it like to create for such a prestigious collection?
ALB: For the Fighting
the Railroads installation, I didn’t know that the authentically constructed men’s
shirt would be hung backwards on a clothesline and that the back of the shirt,
as well as the neighboring apron and pillowcase, would be printed with
propaganda about the 1889 Modesta Avila case. For the Great Depression
installation, I was asked to create two mattresses. At the exhibition, the
smaller of the two fits inside a large drainage pipe and sits as a “home” for
those homeless during that time (see art at top). The larger sits atop a jalopy, which is loaded
with any number of things for such a trip across country: pans, washboard, trunks, lantern, utensils,
pail, grain, etc. A sign on the car reads “California or Bust.” I remember
making those mattresses—locating huge rounds of cotton batting and transporting
them in my tiny car, laying the mattresses out at home as I filled them, asking
my son-in-law to lift them (especially the larger one) into my tiny car again (!)
because they were just so very heavy! These all were interesting, funny moments. But, my two favorites are: Staining those newly finished and pristine
mattresses with coffee and tea so they would look authentically old (and they
do!), and having my son-in-law later ask my daughter, “Why is your mother
making a mattress? Does she need a new
Interviewer: Mrs. Binder, thank you for your generosity in
time and story. It has been richly
ALB: It is a pleasure to share these stories. My thirst
for knowledge about fabric and sewing has provided me with a rich and
satisfying life. I am very lucky, indeed. I hope that many will be able to
experience the Oakland Museum. It is
truly a Bay Area gem.
Anna Lee Binder served as Treasurer and Board
Member of the Costume Society of America for ten years. She currently teaches
20th Century Designers, History of Costume, and Textiles for both
Fashion and Interior Design at FIDM/San Francisco.
FIDM Instructor/Interviewer Laine Harrington is Instructional Specialist
and General Studies Faculty Member at FIDM/San Francisco.
The newly renovated Oakland Museum of California is currently showing “The 1968 Exhibit” through November 25th. The museum’s permanent collections are remarkable for the
Dorothea Lange Archive, numerous Native American artifacts, one of the finest
collections of California daguerreotypes, and artworks by—among others—Richard Diebenkorn, Viola Frey, Manuel Neri, Stephen De Staebler,
and Peter Voulkos.