Marcia Morgado walked onto her old turf at the University of Hawaii’s Miller Hall on Sunday afternoon, expecting a meeting with the school’s dean. Instead, she was surprised with an intimate retirement party and exhibition of garments pulled from the UH Historic Costume Collection in her honor, comprising donations she’d made to the collection over 40 years.
Morgado started teaching in the Apparel Product Design and Merchandising program in 1965 and retired on July 31.
Planning for the exhibition actually began a few years ago, when Linda Arthur Bailey — who worked in the department before taking a job as Washington State University’s professor and curator of apparel, merchandising, design and textiles — returned on sabbatical leave.
"Marcia was talking then about how, when she retires, she would just lock the door and walk away, and we said, ‘You’re not gonna do that,’" Bailey said. She and Carol D’Angelo, professor and curator of the costume collection, searched for the pieces and "got (Morgado’s) daughter in on it as well, hunting down the most important pieces," Bailey said. "We actually had it ready to go two years ago."
During the past few weeks, Bailey found herself uncharacteristically sneaking into and around the building to set up the exhibit, so as not to run into Morgado, who is wrapping up unfinished business and clearing her office before the new semester starts.
The exhibit will not be open to the public, due to space and time issues, but D’Angelo said they are working to have the pieces photographed and displayed on the university’s virtual museum website, www.museum.hawaii.edu.
Clothes easily reflect the life stories of the people who wear them, and due to Morgado’s lengthy interest and appreciation of fashion, the collection presents a neat snapshot of the evolution of fashion from the mid-20th century until now, including her move from rural Utah to the formality of a big city, and finally capturing the loose, casual vibe of sunny Honolulu.
Pieces range from a childhood Hopalong Cassidy cowgirl outfit to late 1950s cocktail dresses and a T-shirt that reads, "Fashion Sucks."
But don’t take that message at face value. She’s just keeping up with trends.
"One might think it’s an anti-fashion statement, but one must think of it in the context of contemporary society’s post-modern irony," she said.
Confronted with nearly two dozen pieces of her life story, Morgado said: "It’s been fun dredging up the memories. Some of these pieces are particularly meaningful, some are not, but of those that are, I can look at them and remember where I was when I was wearing them and what I was feeling."
Some pieces, like a cute, sexy pink, pinup girl swimsuit reading "Aloha" from the 1980s, were never worn but purchased with the intention of donating them to the collection.
"It’s my style. If it had been the right time in my life, I would have worn it. I’d even wear it today," Morgado said.
Eyeing a perfect specimen of an original 1960s bubble dress, complete with detached, drawstring petticoat (they weren’t built into the hem the way it’s done today), brought back the indignation she felt when she learned her mom had thrown out her favorite bubble dress.
"(The collection) could have had two, but my mother discarded the best. It was light green, of silk shantung, gorgeous beyond belief. It was very high fashion, so she couldn’t stand that. She never threw anything else out!"
Seeing elements of the cowgirl outfit she wore as a 7-year-old brought back memories as well. She recalled details of the outfit, down to its snap-pearl-button shirt, original designer Hopalong Cassidy signature, double gun holster and leather wrist cuffs. For her, it wasn’t just make-believe.
"I became a cowgirl," she said. "I really did wear pearl-button shirts. I had horses."
That was all before she moved to California to attend Mills College in Oakland. There, she met her husband, a Hawaii boy who was attending the University of California at Berkeley, and after graduating they moved to Hawaii, where he pursued a doctorate degree in physics.
Morgado had majored in merchandising, but in the 1960s was considered too educated by most employers. There were also few stores that could use her skills.
Liberty House was interested in hiring her, but needed assurance that money spent putting her through its executive training program would not go to waste.
Recalling costumer Edith Head’s chutzpah in passing another student’s drawings off as her own to get her plum job at the MGM movie studio, Morgado said she told the employers: "I’m going to be here the rest of my life," not knowing then how true that statement would turn out to be.
"I was there for many years, so they did get their money back," she said.
At Liberty House, she found herself in the right place at the right time. She worked as a buyer in several departments, including junior girls and sportswear, before launching a Polynesian department focusing on Hawaiian wear.
"At the time there was a phenomenal explosion of people interested in Hawaiian-looking merchandise," she said. "Hawaiian wear was sort of like the Roxy of its day."
Attire from local companies such as Tori Richard, Iolani and Surfline was prominently featured in national advertising campaigns by major retailers and magazines from Life to Vogue.
Divorced when her daughter was 3, Morgado realized that as a single mom, she could not keep retail hours "seven days a week, 363 days of the year," she said. That’s when she saw an ad seeking a UH fashion department instructor that "seemed like something I could do," she said.
At the time she was hired, it was unusual for university faculty members to have practical experience, according to Morgado. Even so, she said, "that first semester I shook like a leaf while I was teaching. I had little experience as a public speaker, none in teaching, but I’ve been here 35 years."
Now that she’s retired, she keeps busy training dogs and seems genuinely fearful of shopping.
"I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop," Morgado said. "I’m a shopaholic. I just fall in love with something and have to buy multiple copies. Now that I’m retiring, I can’t do that. I have to stay out of shopping malls."
But for others left to carry on the mission of training the next generation of fashion disciples, she feels promise in the air.
"I feel we’re on the precipice of another big explosion and this is a wonderful place to nurture design talent," she said. "New York is dynamic and exciting all the time and I feel Hawaii has the same energy. This is the kind of place that inspires culture, people."