Her hands are the first to touch these clothes in nearly 100 years, and “it’s exhilarating.”
Alexis M. Hill is the historical costume intern at the Mission Playhouse, and she’s been working this summer to clean, examine and archive the theater’s unique collection of historical costumes, most of which date back to the original performances of the historic “Mission Play” as early as 1919.
The costumes have been all but forgotten in the years since they dazzled San Gabriel audiences in the 1900s, hidden away in large wicker baskets in the Playhouse attic. The costumes were unearthed by Playhouse staff last year, and staff have been eager to uncover their stories. In her time so far, Hill has been able to bring the costumes back to life and properly store and preserve them so their history can live on.
“The ‘Mission Play’ costume collection is a unique relic of a play that was an important part of early Los Angeles history,” Hill said. “Preserving and identifying these costumes is essential for keeping the memory of the ‘Mission Play’ alive.”
Hill came to the Playhouse through the 2016 Los Angeles County Arts Commission (LACAC) Internship Program. This is the first time the Playhouse has received an intern through this program. Hill has a BFA in fashion design and a BA in psychology from The New School in New York and will enter an MFA program in costume design at CalArts this fall. She is one of 132 interns chosen out of more than 3,000 applicants to participate in the LACAC program.
“I’ve always loved fashion, but costume takes a step further by incorporating a narrative, often with historical significance. I enjoy the challenging collaboration of storytelling and design to create a successful costume,” Hill said. “Historical costumes are by far my favorite, as costumes not only tell the tale of their script, but also their time period and its significance to the story.”
The Mission Playhouse was built specifically to house the "Mission Play," the world-renowned story of the founding of the California missions written by John Steven McGroarty. The play was first performed in 1912 across from the San Gabriel Mission, and ran until 1932.
For her internship, Hill cleans the costumes, documents them and places them in a proper “resting place,” so that they can be preserved. She also researches each garment, comparing it with photos and other documents to determine more information about its history.
Hill said her work at the Playhouse has been exciting and enlightening, being able to go back in time through the costumes. So far the interesting items she has found and restored include a Spanish-style skirt likely worn by dancers in the early run of the "Mission Play." A California Life magazine from 1919 shows a photo of the skirt worn by the El Sombrero Blanco dancers from the “Mission Play.”
Ultimately, Hill will curate a selection of costumes for a future exhibit at the Playhouse.
For more information on Hill’s internship and the Playhouse costume collection, read her blog at www.missionplayhouse.org/about/historical-costume-blog.
Watch a video on Hill’s work at the Playhouse at www.sangabrielcity.com/videos.