By Erin Doane, Curator
Like many people lately, I’ve become a fan of the PBS series Downton Abbey. The characters and story are great but what I’ve really fallen in love with is the clothes. For those unfamiliar, the series follows the lives of an aristocratic English family, the Crawleys, and their servants. The first season began with the news of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912 and continued through to the outbreak of the First World War on August 4, 1914. The second season took the household through the war and to the end of the decade.
The fashions of the Crawley women in the first season are what really caught my eye. I have always been fond of the delicate gowns of the early 1910s. Opulent is a word commonly used to describe those years before the First World War and the term is very fitting when specifically talking about the fashion. It was a time of experimentation, with both the cut and drapery of fabric and with materials. Designers were taking inspiration from the exotic Middle and Far East. Corsets were loosened or discarded entirely and layers of soft flowing fabrics were decorated with silver and gold stitching, tiny beads and spangles, and all sorts of decorative trims and embroidery.
All these details made gorgeous gowns but, unfortunately, also made them very fragile. Over time, the weight of the decorations can pull apart the fine weave of the fabrics. Trims and beads can catch on each other and careless handling through the years can cause unintended damage. It is fairly rare to find one of the diaphanous gowns from the early 1910s in pristine condition. I wonder sometimes if the designers and seamstresses at the time realized that their creations were so ephemeral. It sort of makes sense that the almost frivolous opulence of such gowns could only last a short time.
Careful handling of fragile gowns is essential to their longevity, as is proper storage. Limiting exposure to light and maintaining an environment with constant, appropriate temperature and humidity levels also helps preserve them for a longer time. Here at the Museum, we are working to get digital images of our textile collection so that the gowns can remain undisturbed as much as possible. We may not be able to entirely stop these lovely, intricate, vice-ridden creations from deteriorating but we can slow the process so that future generations can enjoy the beauty of these fashions.