Fashion history instructor uses expertise to restart archival project

Contact: Chris Hybels

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's Iris Cooper is creating an archive for historically significant garments and accessories. The Historical Garment Collection will serve as an educational and inspirational resource for fashion students and the University.


Iris Cooper

"We are trying to build it so anyone can be able to access it, whether you're familiar or not with fashion history," says Cooper, a fashion history instructor.

The collection, housed in the College of Education and Human Development's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, is looking to archive hundreds of donated pieces. Started by a former instructor, the archival project was abandoned during the pandemic and untouched before Cooper joined the fashion program in 2021.

"When we came back to in-person classes, the fashion faculty showed me this collection that had been sitting there unmanaged. Having the skills to manage this, I asked if there was something that we can do?"

Cooper started her journey at WMU when she enrolled in the Department of History as a student. After spending a decade in the fashion merchandising industry, she returned to school to follow her passion of curating and studying fashion through a historical lens. During the program, she was encouraged by her professors to teach fashion history when the position became available.

"Iris's shared history and fashion expertise is the perfect fit for the course and to serve as the curator of our Historical Garment Collection," says Dr. Suzan Smith-Ayers, chair of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. "She has connections in the history department and that silo-breaking expertise makes her the perfect person to foster embedded collaborations. And she has community contacts who will help her build the collection into a CommUniverCity gem!"

Located in Kohrman Hall, the Historical Garment Collection will be storing garments and accessories dating back to the 19th century. The collection also includes pieces from more recent times, including 1970s leisure suits and Calvin Klein jeans.

"It's a nice mix of everything. We have 1860s huge hope skirts with crinoline, 1920s flapper costumes, shoes and baby clothes from throughout the centuries," says Cooper. "I enjoy our wedding dress collection where you can really track styles throughout the decades."

Ella Nelson holds a women's sweater from the 1950s.

In addition to being storage, the Historical Garment Collection will have a space dedicated for educational purposes. In the space, students and researchers will be able to view items and participate in future workshops.


"Garments like these are not accessible at every university," says Ella Nelson, public history major and assistant curator. "So, I think the collection is a very valuable way to look at history for students."

According to Cooper, there isn't an expected date of opening of the Historical Garment Collection, noting the amount of skill and time needed. However, with the support given by the department and Western, she has a lot of hope that it's going to grow into a real asset for the university. 

Fashion at wmu

The fashion merchandising and design majors prepare students for careers in the dynamic, fast-paced fashion industry. Students gain knowledge about industrial processes and products and focus their studies on merchandising or design and development to achieve specific career goals. Courses are designed to be stimulating and challenging, with opportunities to develop creative, communication, leadership, and professional skills. Experiential and study abroad opportunities supplement a strong curriculum to assure that graduates can succeed in a culturally diverse and global industry. For more information, visit the fashion merchandising and design program page.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.