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EXCHANGE: Stylists search for the right look for Alma Mater

August 2, 2018

URBANA, Ill. (AP) — It’s tough to find just the right fashion look when you’re almost 9 feet tall.

So Alma Mater has her own tailor, and a closet full of clothes and accessories for every occasion.

The 89-year-old University of Illinois sculpture has acquired quite a wardrobe since she first donned an Illini basketball jersey for the 2005 Final Four.

Hats and a sash for her birthday. A runner’s bib for the Illinois Marathon (No. 1867, of course). A bright red dress for Chinese New Year. T-shirts for freshman convocation. An orange-and-blue knit scarf for the first snow of the season — along with stocking caps for her pals, Learning and Labor. And a statue-sized cap and gown for graduation.

Accessories? Covered.

She has a giant popcorn box for Ebertfest, an even bigger guitar for the Elnora festival at Krannert, a stack of books to celebrate the UI Library, and a gold crown, orange foam finger and letter “D″ and a piece of fence (get it?) for the annual homecoming football game.

Who makes all this stuff? It has been a combined effort, but the current tailor is Tiffany Rice, who was busy on July 16 measuring the iconic sculpture for a new outfit to debut next week.

The job has its challenges. There’s no Butterick pattern for a woman with a 92-inch arm span and a 25-inch neck. (She’s very symmetrical: base to chin is also 92 inches.)

“It’s such a different scale,” said Rice, who lays out Alma’s dress pattern on her dining room table or living room floor. “You have to start from scratch with everything.”

Plus, Alma is already wearing clothes, so measurements are tricky.

“She’s very modest. She never gets undressed,” Rice said.

On the other hand, “she doesn’t move, if you ask her to stand still,” said Rice, who has wrangled her share of children as a seamstress for the Champaign-Urbana Ballet’s “Nutcracker” production. “And she’s never once flinched when I stuck her with a pin.”

Dressing Alma is another challenge, said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs, who heads Alma’s dress-up team.

The clothes are actually made in two pieces. Alma’s outstretched arms make it impossible to slip on a normal shirt or robe without extra openings (Remember those Barbie doll arms that wouldn’t bend?).

Clothes are split up the back or on the sides, then zipped, Velcroed or tied together once on.

Kaler’s team developed that approach long before Alma started dressing for special occasions. They were working with student athletes on a halftime spot to air during UI football games, and one featured a football player — “a very large young man” — who was majoring in chemistry. They wanted him to wear a lab coat, in full football pads. Not gonna happen.

So they cut the lab coat in half, with a big gap in the back.

“That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, this is what you could do with Alma,’” Kaler said.

The dressing process almost always involves more than one person and a ladder or two.

“Even if you can dress her by herself, you can’t see if everything is straight because you dress her from the back side,” Kaler said. “If I ever have to go dress her by myself, I always yell at a passer-by, ‘Hey, does this look straight?’

“We can dress Alma for commencement in a minute and a half. The first time, it probably took four or five of us half an hour,” Kaler said.

The toughest part? Trying to get something in her hands, which are 12 feet off the ground and too far to reach from her base.

“When you think about her, the open arms are what you think of,” Kaler said. “But logistically, it’s really hard. We don’t have a scissor lift.”

Undressing her is a bit easier. When UI alum Nick Offerman gave the commencement speech in 2017, Kaler invited him to tag along to help remove Alma’s cap and gown that night. They had come from a formal commencement dinner, and when Offerman arrived with his parents and saw Kaler climbing around the sculpture in her dress and heels, he turned to Rice’s husband, campus attorney Scott Rice, and said, “Do you see what she’s doing?” Rice said, “Yeah, it’s OK.” Offerman joined in.

The team removes the outfits every night to foil vandals. Accessories sometimes disappear, including her original Marathon headband.

When the sculpture returned to campus after an 18-month restoration in 2014, Kaler and her crew put a giant beach bag on her shoulder, complete with towel, Coppertone and faux camera, saying she was back from her spa vacation.

When they looked at the 24-hour Alma webcam later that day, they noticed the bag was gone.

UI Police reviewed the footage, which showed a man climbing up and taking the bag off Alma’s shoulder and setting it behind the statue, then walking away.

“He didn’t steal anything,” Kaler said. “He thought it was a prank, and he was trying to help.”

The seed of the idea to decorate Alma dates back to October 2003, when two UI faculty members won Nobel Prizes in the same year — the late Paul Lauterbur, for the development of magnetic resonance imaging, and physics Professor Anthony Leggett for his work on superfluidity. Kaler remembers thinking it would have been fun for Alma to have a Nobel medal.

A year or so later, during the Final Four run, someone (presumably students) dressed Alma in a giant Dee Brown basketball jersey and trademark orange headband. UI facilities workers called Kaler and said, “Hey, should we take this thing off of her?” She told them, “Leave it on.”

Alma was later adorned with roses for the 2008 Rose Bowl and wore Olympic medals when Champaign’s Katherine Reutter and Jonathan Kuck won speedskating silvers.

In 2010, Kaler decided Alma should take part in commencement after posing for so many photos with graduates over the years. She and her husband offered to pay Herff Jones for a giant commencement gown. The company donated it instead, making the largest gown in its history (size 100).

Students frequently ask if they can decorate Alma for an event. Public Affairs makes sure the idea has a connection to campus and the outfit is appropriate and won’t hurt the statue.

“Sometimes people will still go out and decorate her on their own, which is not allowed. If it’s something we didn’t approve, we take it down,” she said.

Kaler fully expects the tradition to expand in coming years.

“It’s just fun when she can kind of reflect the personality of the institution, the people of the institution. It kind of brings her to life,” Kaler said.

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Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, https://bit.ly/2uJNR7G

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Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com

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