Walking through the doors of the Ebell of Los Angeles building on Lucerne Boulevard, you can't help but be filled with a sense of nostalgia. Perhaps it's the walls, which are intricately wood-paneled, or the ceiling painted in hues of gold and aqua, or maybe it's the jaw-dropping Persian rugs placed through the space.
It's a hearty feast for the eyes and a nod to the Sumner Hunt-designed building's grandeur. With an abundance of construction going on in the city, there aren't as many older places left in Los Angeles that are preserved with an air of Old World elegance. But the Ebell — a 122-year-old social club founded by women with a roster of about 440 members today — appears to be a living representation of that, blending the past and the present.
With a busy calendar of events, the club, which is named in honor of noted educator Adrian Ebell, became a spot for Angelenos looking to explore the arts as well as educational and philanthropic efforts. (During its heyday, Judy Garland auditioned at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, while Amelia Earhart made her final major public appearance at the Ebell before attempting her flight around the world.)
For the last three years, the club's annual Charter Day luncheon, which celebrates its charter and honors its founders, has offered members an opportunity to show off one of the Ebell's treasures, the club's staggering costume collection. The archive of clothes dates back to the 1800s and includes about 900 pieces such as dresses, hats, handbags and other accessories.
For the Oct. 24 lunch, Loyce Braun, the club's current president, said she wanted to honor this year's election, especially because Hillary Clinton made history by being the first female presidential nominee to be backed by a major U.S. political party. So this year's fashion show highlighted clothes and accessories from the late 1800s and early 1900s, the era of working toward women's right to vote.
"Clothes were important even to the rather blue-stocking ladies who founded the Ebell of Los Angeles," Braun said. "In the efforts they made to preserve the clothes, it shows that they had a sense of their place in history and wanted it to be remembered."
Braun said her favorite piece from the collection is a velvet burnout suit from 1889. The suit represents "a clear marker between women's constraints and women being opened up to opportunities," she said.
Ultimately, the suit, deeply embellished and with intricate boning and other standout pieces in the archive are symbolic of different generations and the style choices those L.A. women made. Pucci dresses, vibrantly colored silk velvet coats, lace tea dresses from the 1920s and much more are included in the collection.
Fashion selections ranging from hats and parasols to lace-up boots and metallic mesh handbags are stored in adjacent annexes of the building. Boater hats are kept in a corner of one accessories closet, and shelves are lined with feathered fascinators. A single box is filled exclusively with sleeping caps.
About seven years ago, Braun learned of the Ebell's fashion collection when she came across a club member who was setting up a vignette of pieces to accompany an exhibit of historic furniture.
"Many of these pieces had been locked up and forgotten," Braun said. "Seeing them sparked my interest."
Braun got more involved and began regularly showing pieces from the collection to complement the club's luncheons and other activities. As membership and interest ebbed and flowed over the years, so did the interest in the collection.
After Braun took over as the club's costume curator, she began to reassemble the collection, which she said felt like a treasure hunt. "The collection was comprehensively inventoried by [Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising] in the late 1990s, which left us with a thorough list," she said.
However, because the Ebell's building is large and cavernous, members continued to find other sartorial treasures, some stuffed into plastic bags.
Denise Parga, a retired attorney who's now costume curator for the Ebell, stumbled upon a gaucho hat that likely hadn't been touched in decades. To keep its shape, the hat had been stuffed with newspapers dating from the 1950s.
Parga also discovered a mannequin-filled closet that hadn't been opened in years. Without meaning to, she and other Ebell members became archaeologists.
Parga and her daughter, Chloe Ginsburg, became interested in the Ebell collection after they were asked to model in the fashion show two years ago. The two now make regular visits to meet with the costume committee and continue cataloging and restoring the clothing trove.
Parga said preserving the pieces has allowed her to return to fashion, a field she worked before becoming an attorney decades ago. The mother and daughter proudly displayed the repair work they made to a dress from the 1920s and showed off another intricately embroidered black-and-gold piece from the same era, explaining that they added a kick pleat to it.
"Whoever wore this dress had a lot of fun and did a lot of dancing," Parga said, revealing the restored dress that looked like it could be hanging on a rack at Lily et Cie in Beverly Hills or displayed in a museum.
Ginsburg, who has studied costume design, also has a deep appreciation for the archive of sartorial goodies. "We understand quality and appreciate detail," she said. "It's so wonderful to be able to care for pieces that you would otherwise never be able to touch in a museum."
While they have enjoyed perusing the archive, Parga and Ginsburg said they also have wondered about the stories of the donors of these frocks, accessories and other pieces, likely fashionable Ebell members who came long before them.
"We imagine the women who wore the pieces, who were daring enough," Ginsburg said. "These were women with outsized personalities."