Skip to main content

People of Duke Arts: Reilly Johnson (T’19)

Published By Rebekah Wellons / published on: May 8, 2019

In this interview with Reilly Johnson (Trinity ’19), we learn how this Program II student’s love of costuming and textiles grew into an extensive senior research exhibition in the Ruby.

Duke CAST member Rebekah Wellons interviews Reilly about her inspiration for this complex and unique project—and how it has inspired her to consider a career in museums.

RW: Will you tell me about your project, and how it connects to Program II?

RJ: My Program II is called “The Reciprocal Nature of History, Culture, and Aesthetics and Garment Construction.” I wanted to utilize the historic production of certain clothing forms as a type of primary research in material culture scholarship. The thing about material culture studies is that it’s never really been its own field. It’s always been something that people specialize in within other fields.

I am interested in how costumes and textiles can contextualize a time period. For example, you can tell what part of the world something came from based on its fabric. This is particularly helpful if you’re working with a place that doesn’t have a lot of written records. I wanted to choose two different case study cultures—one of which had a lot of written records and one of which had basically none.

“This project blended my love of research, material culture studies, and working with historic costume.”

Program II is not a major, but rather an individualized degree program. Students admitted to Program II examine and explore an area of scholarship by designing their own unique program of study and fulfilling its requirements. Learn more.
Photo by Robert Zimmerman.

RW: What inspired you to get involved with costume design and textiles?

RJ: I have made costumes since I was in tenth grade—but that was more in terms of comic and anime conventions and cosplay. It was a hobby. When I got to Duke, I intended to be pre-med (like most incoming first years!). I qualified for a work-study job, and I wanted to work in the costume shop because I thought it would be a lot of fun. After getting the job, that was the first time anyone told me this was something I could do for a job. I thought, “Are you serious? People get to do this?” That was a turning point for me.

RW: What drew you to Medieval Scotland and Meiji Era Japan as your two case studies?

Image by Robert Zimmerman.

RJ: I knew that I wanted to study abroad and I knew that I wanted to go somewhere English-speaking so that I could do research for one of my case studies. I chose medieval Scotland. I also knew that there are not a lot of written records for that period, so it poses a unique set of challenges.

I chose Meiji-era Japan thanks to a costume class at UNC. For one assignment, we had to design the characters of A Midsummer’s Night Dream as if they lived in a different time and place around the world. I was given Meiji-era Japan (1868-1912). I learned that the introduction of chemical-based dyes to the country began during this period. The silhouettes of the garments I was studying were also associated with national identity. It was a totally different type of research than I did when I was working with sixteenth-century late-medieval Scotland. For Meiji-era Japan, I had tons of examples of garments. There are people alive today who have been trained in these traditional methods. The methods of construction and embellishment were more challenging, but I had a lot more information available.

RW: What was it like making these garments through traditional techniques?

Image by Robert Zimmerman.

RJ: It was insanely hard, if I’m being honest. It was very, very difficult. There were so many techniques used throughout the process, whether you’re applying a mixture of reduced-down seaweed and soy milk to the fabric to temporarily turn it into a canvas texture, or you’re learning how to stretch the silk traditionally. It was a lot of piecing together information, even though I had all of these wonderful example garments to study.

The medieval Scottish one was significantly harder in terms of getting the garment correct, because there are no extant examples of this garment. All of the drawings and contemporary descriptions were made by outsiders, so a lot of them show cultural bias and were made by people with a vendetta against highland Scottish people. Not many of them knew how the clothing was meant to go together, so they were just drawing what they saw rather than what was actually happening. Getting the pattern correct was definitely a challenge. I had to figure out the widths of fabrics they were weaving during that time by looking through last will and testaments, because people were very descriptive about cloths in those documents. I had to research agriculture and animal husbandry to understand whether they were growing the flax natively, how it was being spun, and by whom. I did all of this research and analysis to piece together information that was not available in one place.

RW: What are you proudest of?

RJ: Getting it done! I struggle talking about being proud of my project. As someone hypercritical of their own work, it’s stressful to look at what I have made and not see mistakes. This is my first time ever doing any of these techniques and working with these materials.

It felt like three projects. The paper was about 100 pages, I made these two garments, and I mounted this exhibit. It was a lot of work!

RW: How did it feel to present this exhibit in the Ruby?

RJ: It felt good, but definitely nerve wracking. It’s nerve wracking to put it out there for everyone to see when I’m so aware of the mistakes in my own work. But the whole point of the project wasn’t to make perfect garments. The point of the project was to assess a particular methodology and to look at the concept of socially produced durability. Why has an object—or its particular tradition—survived, while others have not?

RW: How did this project, and your Program II major, influence the career directions you’re looking into post-graduation?

RJ: Before starting this project, I had never even considered museum work as something I might be interested in pursuing as a career. I’ve always had a fixation on old objects and the idea that there’s history attached to them. Even my mom always had the same kind of interest in old things—we went to antique stores together. But it was never something that I seriously considered.

“I also think the museum world could really benefit from new blood when thinking about the significance of cultural sensitivity in the modern day.”

When I started doing research for my project, I needed to examine medieval period artwork from the British Isles, or kimono, in museums. I started working with a lot of curators and conservators. Going back into the labs and getting to do that kind of research was awesome. I really enjoyed the environment and working with the artifacts. I also think the museum world could really benefit from new blood when thinking about the significance of cultural sensitivity in the modern day. Not everybody who has been in the field for a long time is operating on that level. So this interest in museum work is definitely new and comes a lot from my project.


Rebekah Wellons is a senior from southwestern Virginia with a passion for theater and music. Her Duke experience has been defined by incredible professors, late-night Perkins sessions, hiking adventures, and impactful rehearsals with Hoof ‘n’ Horn and Rhythm & Blue. Once she graduates, Wellons hopes to find work in a creative field—whether performing, working in arts administration, or seeking opportunities in governmental arts advocacy.