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Timeless Designs

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By Randi Schmelzer

Published Oct 1, 2007 8:00 AM


Bruin Patricia Rieff Anawalt is an expert on clothes from around the world.

For Angelenos, the name Anawalt is practically synonymous with home-and-garden supplies. For 84 years, the Anawalt Lumber Company has been a city staple, a welcome alternative to big-box hardware stores.

But for anthropologists, archaeologists and geographers across the globe, the name Anawalt is more likely to conjure images of ceremonial robes and shamanic costumes than plywood and potting soil. That's because Patricia Rieff Anawalt '57, M.A. '71, Ph.D. '75, CEO and chairman of the board of her family's eponymous company, is an expert in the history of ethnographic clothing, particularly among non-industrialized cultures.

As a renowned researcher and founding director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA's Center for the Study of Regional Dress, Anawalt has changed the way scholars think about the role of textiles in the process of acculturation. Simply speaking, she brings clothing out of the closet, into the culture.

And now, a sweeping publishing epic also bears her name, this time as an author. The Worldwide History of Dress is a 600-page tome to be published by Thames & Hudson, London, in November. Anawalt began the project in 1999, at the age of 75, and it consumed the next eight years of her life. It also features the Fowler prominently — a third of the pieces shown in Worldwide are textiles from the museum's collection.

Anawalt's sizeable portfolio includes articles in journals and magazines on topics ranging from the similarities between Ecuadorian and American Southwestern textiles to Aztec human sacrifice. But with its all-encompassing focus, The Worldwide History of Dress is among her most ambitious projects. But, according to Anawalt, the book actually began as a pitch for a series on Mexican textiles. (The Fowler has an extensive collection.)

"The publisher wrote back and said they might be interested in that, but had another idea," Anawalt recalls. "They were looking for someone to write a history of non-Western clothing all over the world."

In compiling material for the book, Anawalt traveled the globe, from Eastern Europe to Asia, and over the course of 10 "fascinating" trips, she met with curators, collectors and everyday people. It was "a wonderful experience," she says.

Things did change, Anawalt says, when her husband unexpectedly died. She became head of the Anawalt Lumber business, for one. And she lost her longtime travel companion.

Still, Anawalt says, "I never for a moment considered not finishing [the book]."

Now, she has — and she's already gearing up for her next one.

Its focus? The "clothing and implements of shamanism," Anawalt says. "That should be an interesting one, too."

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