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Collections and Conservation Dress

Among the artifacts that Katherine Dunham generously gave to the Missouri Historical Society are dazzling costumes and accessories, papier mâché theater props and masks, and fine examples of Haitian and African folk art. These items testify to her multiple passions: dance, anthropology, and political activism.

Diablo Mask

Conservation of the Katherine Dunham collection at  MHS is underway and a feature article highlighting conservation is planned.  Discussed below are a few of the objects mentioned throughout this site.

A Life in Profile
Dunham Dance Technique
Film Career
Global Activist
Collections and Conservation
Louis Vuitton Shoe Trunk
Her Louis Vuitton trunk carried clothing accessories and 18 pairs of shoes. The trunk’s exterior bears the LV logo Monogram Canvas, with leather tabs and solid brass trim. There is a serial number on the keyhole plate and inside is a leather manufacturer's label. Nine pairs of Dunham’s shoes are in the trunk. (Dimensions: H33” x W28” x D16”)

Following World War II, the Dunham Dance Company toured abroad to enthusiastic reviews in Mexico, London, Paris, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia. Assortments of international travel stickers layered on her trunk remind us of Dunham’s own words about her dance company: “Without Europe, we couldn’t have survived.”



Louis Vuitton Shoe Trunk   Louis Vuitton Shoe Trunk, Open

Louis Vuitton Shoe Trunk, Tags

Tree of Life
A 20th-century flat, metal tree sculpture with cutout images. Made by Almann, Haiti. Gift of Katherine Dunham.
On display at the Missouri History Museum in the Reflections Gallery.
Missouri Historical Society Museum Collections.

In the 1940s, 55-gallon steel oil containers came into Haiti carrying fuel reserves for navy ships. The Haitians collected the emptied and discarded drums and found ways to put them to good use. Metal workers in the small town of Croix-des-Bouquets flattened the steel and cut it into figurative images that usually portrayed deities and spirits from their local religion (general information published by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe to accompany a steel cutout pictured in its 2001 calendar), ca. 1975. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

(Dimensions: H15” x W16” x D7” with attached stand)

Tree of Life
Rabbit Mask from Nigeria
This is a rabbit spirit mask thought to be from the Mumuye culture of Nigeria. The wooden mask has elongated ears and carved triangular teeth with evidence of red pigment on the mouth and teeth. (Dimensions: H18.5” x W9” x D10”)

In 1983, Walter Cronkite described Katherine Dunham as “a choreographer with the eye of an anthropologist and the soul of an artist.” At Dunham’s Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, where her many protégés learned the Dunham Dance technique, she emphasized African arts as a source of pride. Dunham displayed her African and Caribbean art pieces in the Dunham Dynamic Museum because she thought the keys to survival and growth, especially for the young dancers of East St. Louis, lay in their knowing their history.

Rabbit Mask
Caribbean Diablo Mask
This colorfully painted papier mâché mask depicts a horned devil. On the back, a piece of red fabric is stapled just behind the horns and hangs down the neck of the wearer. Made for the feast of Corpus Christi, the mask is inscribed twice on the inside. One inscription identifies this as a Diablos De Yare mask.
(Dimensions: H12.5” x W 17” x D8”)

A second inscription inside identifies this mask as a “gift for the renowned choreographer Dunham from Professor Yolanda Salazar, Institute of Higher Learning, Caracas.” Dunham brought international performers and teachers to the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis. According to Dunham, “everybody is an anthropologist. My objective is to see that different cultures get to know each other.”

Diablo Mask   Diablo Mask, Back

Diablo Mask, Inscription 1    Diablo Mask, Inscription 2

Striped Satin Dress from Broadway Musical, Cabin in the Sky
In 1940, George Balanchine collaborated with Katherine Dunham on the choreography for the all-black cast of the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. Her Dunham Dance Company performed the dance numbers in a mix of styles that included classical ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean folkdance. On choreographing with George Balanchine, Dunham said, “I was pretty adamant about what I wanted to do. We had a wonderful time together.”


Striped Satin Dress from Broadway Musical, Cabin in the Sky
Dance Ensemble from Acaraje, Pink Cotton Performance Dress, Shawl, and Turban
The dress is a voluminous and multilayered costume designed by John Pratt, Katherine Dunham’s husband. John Pratt designed Dunham’s costumes and street clothes. During their Paris tour, it is said that his costume designs even inspired French fashions (Aschenbrenner). According to Zita Allen, “Dunham charmed and dazzled audiences with brilliantly staged, exquisitely costumed, energetic productions based largely on ethnographic material gathered on field trips to Jamaica, Trinidad, and Martinique. Picture a pretty woman with sparkling eyes and skin the color of café au lait gliding across the stage in a sea of ruffles disguised as a John Pratt costume.”




Acaraje Dress


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