Monday, January 21, 2013

Historic Fashion on Display

by Erin Doane, Curator

Historic textiles are one of the more fragile types of objects to put on display in museums. Special care is needed to support delicate fabrics when they are on exhibit.  I love historic clothing and believe that it is meant to be seen.  Textiles should certainly be kept and preserved by museums for future generations but I also think it is pointless to just pack them away, out of sight forever.  People need to see historic items to appreciate them and want to protect them.  There needs to be a balance between preservation and making these wonderful items available to the public.

Cotton day dress (1880s-1890s), porter’s uniform (1890s), 
suit with morning jacket (1890s), child’s dress (1880s)
Recently, the Arnot Art Museum borrowed some historic clothing from us for an exhibit commemorating its 100th anniversary.  CCHS archivist Rachel Dworkin and I went to the art museum to help them dress the mannequins. The process is fairly simple, but very important to ensure that the clothing is not damaged while on display.  As preparation before going to the museum, we took our standard mannequins and used batting to pad out the forms to the size needed for the clothing.  This ensures that the weight of the clothing is evenly disturbed and there is no undue stress on any part of the garment.  The rest of the actual dressing of the mannequins took place onsite.

Normally a Victorian lady would wear at least six undergarments including a corset to get the right silhouette for her dress (you can read our post from September 24, 2012 for details about the undergarments) but most of those foundation garments are unnecessary on a mannequin.  We did use one petticoat to help shape and support the skirt.  The skirt of the gorgeous late-1880’s two piece dress is rather complicated with draping, lace and interior ties.  It is also somewhat heavy with its train and took two people to carefully set into place on the mannequin.

Padded mannequin --- Mannequin with petticoat --- Mannequin with skirt
Once the skirt was set, the bodice of the dress was placed on the mannequin.  Most museum objects should be handled while wearing white cotton gloves to protect them from damage.  In this case, clean hands are more appropriate because the gloves can actually cause damage by catching on hooks or trim.  Additional batting was added to the shoulders for support then the lace collar and velvet tie were arranged.  Because of the way it had been stored and the type of fabric, this particular dress had very few wrinkles.  We did give the lace and train a light steaming to ease what wrinkles there were.  Steaming, not ironing, is the best way to smooth historic garments.  You must be cautious, however, as some silks are very prone to water damage and should never be steamed.  After finishing the first dress we repeated these steps with the remaining four garments.  The entire process of getting five mannequins properly dressed took just about two hours.  

Adding the bodice                       Finishing touches

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