By: Laura Crow, USITT Fellow
Zelma Weisfeld was an extraordinary person. She was a USITT Fellow, a costume designer/historian, and a costume consultant. She was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 9, 1931, and made waves wherever she went until her departure on April 18, 2018, at the age of 86. Her career as a professor of costume design and history at the University of Michigan spanned from 1960-1986, when she retired as Professor Emerita.
During her 26 years of teaching at the University of Michigan, Zelma (Zee) challenged and inspired innumerable students. She was a strong advocate for students everywhere and especially through USITT where she was a generous benefactor, establishing the Zelma H. Weisfeld Award for Costume Design & Technology in 1997. Each year, she was involved in the reviewing process of the applications and presented the award, taking a strong interest in those that she sponsored far beyond the award date. In addition, she endowed scholarships for aspiring costume design students at the University of Michigan as well as for her alma maters, Temple and Yale.
As one of the founding members of the Costume Commission in 1975, Zelma was a force, creating mentoring programs, a costume portfolio review process, working on human issues and was an active member of the Publications Committee. She served on the Board of Directors for three terms: 1978-82, 1991-94, and 1995-97, and the results of her activities led to her being inducted as a Fellow of the Institute in 1994. Her accomplishment in service to the Institute was recognized in 2007 when she was selected to receive the Joel E. Rubin Founders Award. In March 2018, she was granted an Honorary Lifetime Membership at the 58th Annual Conference & Stage Expo.
Zelma continued to live in Dexter, Michigan, and after retirement was able to spend more time in her adopted second city of London. She had a flat on the South Bank by the Blackfriar’s Bridge, a short walk to the National Theatre or the Tate Modern. It was the envy of many and rented by a lucky few. Even her health didn’t stop her from continuing her annual trips to London. She knew the London bus system well, so she could travel to her favorite haunts even when she was reduced to walking with a cane. She maintained her membership to the Costume Society of Great Britain and inspired others to engage in international activities.
Zelma’s niece Joan Mack remembers, “She was a fun aunt and a very strong person … when she realized that the end of her independent life was at hand, she chose to fade away quickly. It was a quiet and peaceful end to a terrific life of theatre, travel, and family.”
All will miss this consummate designer, historian, and rabble rouser. Zee lit the way for women to find a home at USITT along with being an inspiration through her generosity of spirit and joy in living and loving life.