Roosevelt School of the Arts students are unlocking history in a closet

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- These kids and their teacher are learning about people and society from the clothes worn by their ancestors.

A huge outdoor storage container may not look like much, but inside it's a treasure chest and there's at least 1,000 pieces in that container.

Tamara Norris is a seamstress, costume designer, and teacher at the Roosevelt School of the Arts (RSA); but she's also becoming a historian and archeologist as she and her fashion design students dig deep into the corners and closets of Roosevelt High to find their artifacts.

Norris says "I had no idea what we would unearth and the amount that we would unearth."

Built in the 1920s, Roosevelt is Fresno's second oldest high school and the magnet school has been instructing students in the performing arts since the '80's. That's a lot of plays, concerts, and dances over the decades and those shows needed costumes.

Norris showed action news some of those costumes.

"We've got Belle. We have our Sleeping Beauty. We have our Cinderella," Norris said.

Over the years, countless costumes and donated clothing got stuffed in five different areas: from two massive storage containers to the basement under the school auditorium.

"We had a small closet space at the very top of the theater auditorium and when we opened up the was so packed you could barely open the door," said Norris.

Norris and her students started unpacking, moving, and sorting the clothing. Tucked in the thousands of costume pieces, they discovered dozens and dozens of vintage garments.

"A costume is something that's created to maybe mimic a time period. A vintage piece is actually legitimately from that time period," she said. "We have more than just a few pieces. We have a legitimate collection."

The oldest vintage piece is a chemise undergarment which dates back to 1880. There is much more from the 1900s, to the 1960's, and beyond. Some of it was actually designed and created in Fresno.

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The performing arts magnet school has more than 8,000 pieces, filling five different storage areas including two heavy duty containers.

Student Evelyn Mendoza modeled a dress from the late '30's.

"It's actually pretty amazing, unbelievable, I've never worn anything like this," said Mendoza.

Freshman Julianna Juarez wore a dress from the 1950's. "It feels awesome! I feel super-cute!"

Sure, the vintage clothes are a lot of fun, but the students are learning about the history of fashion, sustainability, and preserving the past.

Student Tatiana Olguin said, "I feel that I'm learning different aspects of fashion that I wouldn't necessarily have an opportunity to see first-hand."

"I think it's important because we see and pull down these pieces and can see in that time period, how these pieces were made and constructed and how they're so different from the clothes we wear now," said Zac Taylor, RSA student.

"You get to really take a step into history and take a step back in time and that's really cool to get that opportunity in this school," said Zoe Porter, RSA student.

Their teacher, Tamara Norris, also says "Clothing can really tell you about the people and the society and we have that here."

Norris and her students still have much work to do, sorting and cataloguing all the costume pieces and the vintage garments, but their journey to the past has been a great experience.

"I don't go to work every day. That's how fun it is!" said Norris.

Some of those vintage garments on are display in the lobby of the school's auditorium. Norris says she'll continue using the vintage collection as a teaching tool for her students, and she'd like to get some of the pieces in a museum, so everyone can see them.
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