Inside a hidden, nondescript building on the UC Davis campus, is a collection that is anything but nondescript and is seen nearly every day. It holds the UC Davis Design Collection, made up of about 5,000 objects including 1920s flapper dresses, African American quilts, and a 19th century Syrian wedding tunic woven from thin strips of hammered metal.
The collection was officially named after Jo Ann C. Stabb, the person who started it. Professor emerita Stabb taught at UC Davis from 1968 to 2002 and remains active as a scholar. The naming was announced at an on-campus event March 5 attended by nearly 70 of Stabb’s colleagues and former students.
“I feel very honored,” said Stabb. “I’m happy to see the commitment to maintaining the collection and making it more visible.”
Her former student Mary Schoeser, author of Textiles: The Art of Mankind and World Textiles: A Concise History, came from Great Britain to attend.
“Having researched textile and design collections around the globe, UC Davis is fortunate to have a world-class collection that has aided me in my own research over the years,” Schoeser said. “When I was her student, Jo Ann was not that much older than I. However, her knowledge and scholarship from those days has remained with me throughout my career.”
From a closet to a collection
When Stabb arrived at UC Davis, there was a small sampling of textiles stored in a closet. The collection came together slowly over time with no deliberate plan, Stabb said. “Little by little, word would get out and people would contact us about items they had,” she said. “Often students saw what we had and donated things from their families. People were generous and continue to be.”
The collection was started as a teaching tool and has remained an important one. “It brought history to life,” Stabb said.
“Jo Ann Stabb essentially started the textile and fashion curriculum in the department,” said Susan Taber Avila, chair of the UC Davis Department of Design. “She captured the zeitgeist of the wearable art movement and brought that creativity into her teaching. She understood and championed the value of studying actual textiles and artifacts.”
From around the world
The collection is wide-ranging, but “consists primarily of endangered textiles from around the world,” said Adele Zhang, collection curator and manager. Standouts, along with that Syrian tunic:
- Pants from 1840s India made with a gold and silver weaving technique no longer practiced.
- A 20th century woman’s dress from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, hand-sewn and embellished with silk embroidery, mother-of-pearl and plastic buttons, brass rondels and glass and metal beads.
- A king’s raffia skirt wrapper, circa 1998, from Congo.
“The collection provides design inspirations for our undergraduate students, as well as research material for our graduate students and faculty members,” Zhang said. “Graduate students use the collection in curating and designing exhibitions at the (UC Davis) Design Museum and for hands-on design experience of executing ideas.”
The collection is also a resource outside the university. Scholars cite pieces in publications, and items have been loaned to the Oakland Museum of California, Sacramento Public Library and the New Jersey State Museum.
"Because of her and her passion and love of textiles, we have this,” Zhang said.
Connection with students
Making and keeping connections Stabb’s creativity and commitment extended to her students and colleagues, said Avila and Zhang, who were both her students.
“As I moved from student to peer, I always appreciated the efforts Jo Ann made to keep me informed of opportunities and keep tabs on my career,” Avila said.
Whenever Stabb gives talks and presentations anywhere, the audience always includes many former students, Zhang said. That was the case at the Sunday event as well.
“She gave her attention and love to her students,” Zhang said. “She’s a magnet and gathers people around her.”
Stabb remains active in the fashion and textile design world and at UC Davis. With Avila, she co-curated “The Image of Fashion: A Photographer’s Legacy,” an exhibition of photos and fashion from the early 20th century at the Design Museum last year. She is helping organize a recent donation to the collection of women’s clothing spanning the early 19th to early 20th centuries.
— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science