Olive Wong and a Guide to the NYPL Costume Collections

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
August 10, 2016
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Part of Olive's Draft for a Digital Costume Guide

Download: Costume Design Research Guide by Aileen Abercrombie

Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to visit the Library for the Performing Arts in person will know that we have some of the most knowledgeable and friendly staff working in any library. Many of our staff have had careers in the Performing Arts industry, and so bring to their library and reference work life experience in art we preserve. One of these artist-librarians, Olive Wong, a costume designer who worked at the library for 11 years from 1999-2010, sought to share her experience with costume design with the library patrons—and, indeed, the world—through a digital guide that would serve as a guide to the library’s costume collections.

Unfortunately, Olive fell ill and passed away in 2012 before this dream could be realized. However, she left behind paper notes sketching out a plan. Through generous gifts from her friends, including financial support from Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, we have been able to bring her dream to fruition. Professional television, film, and theatrical costume designer Aileen Abercrombie designed, wrote, and edited an e-book guide to the library’s costume collections inspired by Olive’s work. The guide is freely downloadable below in PDF form and should be both printable and readable on most digital devices. In addition, Olive’s project led to the digitization of 814 new images from our costume collections, including most of Patricia Zipprodt’s designs for the original production of Fiddler on the Roof. These images can be viewed on our Digital Collections.

On this occasion of the completion of Olive Wong’s vision, I have asked two of her friends, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld and library staff member, Roderick Bladel, to share a few memories.

From Louise Kerz Hirschfeld and Roberta Hodes:

There was a grace and spirituality about Olive Wong that affected her career. As the quiet librarian at the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, one would not suspect such a formidable background as hers.

Her father, Howard Thurman, was the mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King and followed the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He had one of the first integrated churches in San Francisco. Olive Thurman Wong was sent to private schools and graduated from Vassar College. She retained her connections to the African American community, and took her children south to visit their grandmother… who was formerly a slave.

Always interested in theatre, and a student of Aline Bernstein at Vassar, she wrote and directed plays on multicultural subjects. They were presented in Harlem and the Lower East Side of New York under the aegis of the War on Poverty. Her marriage to journalist/actor Victor Wong (with whom she had two children, Anton and Emily) ended, and she studied library science as a second career. At the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, she realized the need for archival work in the area of costume design… and proceeded to document costume designs. Now her work is available globally as an e-book.

We were honored to have known Olive Wong as a friend.

Sincerely, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld and Vassar classmate Roberta Hodes

From Roderick Bladel:

Thanks to Ms. Hirschfeld for her memories of our dear mutual friend. I know she will forgive my adding a few details I cannot resist.

A statue of Olive's father is on the campus of Morehouse College, where he taught Dr. King.

After Vassar, Olive attended the University of Iowa, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in costume design and construction. She soon became costumer for Karamu in Ohio, one of the first major African American regional theatres. She was also director of its children's theatre.

Victor Wong had a distinguished career as an actor. He and Olive took particular pride in his prominent role in "The Last Emperor," which won the Academy Award for best picture that year. They had their own theatre in San Francisco. They were also justly proud of their children, Emily and New York architect Anton Wong. (Named after? Olive never stopped crying over Chekhov.)

Her library degree was from the University of California at Berkeley. As librarians one of the chief enthusiasms we shared was our respect for the enormous collection of clipping folders in the theatre, dance, and music divisions of our research library. She wanted this guide to bring designers' attention to the many thousands of colored halftone pictures from newspapers, magazines, and brochures found in these files.

Olive Wong (1927-2012) was the most generous woman I have ever known. A steadfast friend, she will always be missed. Always loved.

Rod Bladel

Olive’s dream is at last realized in the e-book below, which I hope will both entertain and inform all readers.

Thanks, Olive!

Download: Costume Design Research Guide by Aileen Abercrombie