TSA has lost a steadfast friend and supporter with the passing of Robert Lee Shep on December 21, 2022 at his home in San Francisco. Born in Los Angeles on February 27, 1933, Shep was generally known as “Robb” to his friends and will also be known to many TSA members by his professional name R. L. Shep, based on his long career as a textile book publisher and as the generous donor, in 2000, of the endowment that created TSA’s R. L. Shep Book Award.
Robb earned a BA in Dramatic Art at UC Berkeley in 1955 and continued his education at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. His experiences in Europe remained an important influence on his life and he frequently spoke of his affection for locations including Paris, Lyon, and Milan. Back in the U.S., in 1965 he began a career of selling imported and out-of-print books on textiles and costume. In the late 1970s he relocated from Mendocino to Washington State, sharing homes in Seattle and then on Lopez Island with his then-partner Pieter Bach. He studied bookbinding and in 1980 published the first version of his Cleaning and Repairing Books: A Practical Home Manual (revised in 1991). His combined interests in books and textiles led in 1981 to his taking ownership of The Textile Booklist, a periodical that featured textile book reviews and textile-related travel accounts as well as Shep’s extensive inventory of books for sale.
Shep served on the board of directors of the Costume Society of America from 1985 to 1987 and developed a special interest in republishing out-of-print nineteenth-century books on textile and costume subjects. He edited and produced more than twenty such volumes between 1986 and 2005, including such fascinating titles as Civil War Gentlemen: 1860s Apparel Arts & Uniforms (originally published in 1865) and Freaks of Fashion: The Corset and the Crinoline (1868). Making these rare texts more readily available provided tremendous service to costume historians, theatrical designers, and textile artists alike.
A world traveler, Robb visited Nepal in 1978 and subsequently made repeated visits to Bhutan and Northeastern India, developing a special interest in the textiles of these regions. He also traveled to areas as diverse as Mali, the Middle East, and Japan. At home in his later years he led a rather peripatetic life, moving back and forth between Mendocino, Seattle, San Francisco, and Vashon Island, before settling in his apartment at Park Merced in San Francisco, where he developed strong connections in the museum and textile communities in the Bay Area. While he preferred living in the cooler north, he also nurtured connections in museums in his original hometown, Los Angeles. In roughly the same period that he donated his endowment to TSA, he set up similar mechanisms for the Textile Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to fund an on-going series of triennial costume and textile symposia and to the Fowler Museum at UCLA to support textile publications. The Fowler Museum Textile Series, supported primarily through Shep’s endowment, has now grown to sixteen titles covering textiles worldwide.
Robb Shep’s twin love of books and world textiles reached its fullest expression in the creation of the R. L. Shep Book Award, which arose out of discussions between Shep and TSA president Mattiebelle Gittinger at the very end of the 1990s. The award, now in its 23rd annual cycle, is given to the publication judged by the TSA Book Award Committee to be the best book of the year in the field of ethnic textile studies (as defined in the endowment’s founding documents). In establishing the award, Robb wanted not only to honor great research and publishing but also to bring greater attention to TSA itself. His legacy has shaped our community and he was grateful for the opportunity to share his passions, for the long life he lived, and for the many friends he made along the way. Robb Shep was 89 years old.