Conserving and dressing 18th c. Splendour

A co-authored post by Anne Peranteau, Textile Conservator and Sam Gatley, Costume Mountmaker

Historic dress, historic problems

In 1951, Te Papa was given three 18th century dresses, all dating to approximately 1780.   Our work in the textile lab is currently focused on preparing two of these gowns for display in the Splendour module of Nga Toi | Arts Te Papa, season 6.

As shown in portraits of that time, gowns of the period feature elaborate open fronted gowns edged with lace and worn with silk petticoats and sheer embroidered shawls called fichus.  The stays that would have been worn below these gowns compressed the upper torso into a funnel shape, and hoisted the bust up to the top edge of the bodice.

The Ladies Waldegrave, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1780. National Gallery of Scotland NG 2171. Oil on canvas.

 

Te Papa’s gown shares these features, and includes silk Mechlin lace edging around the neckline and silk and gauze engageantes, or sleeve ruffles.

PC000071, robe a l'anglaise retroussee, c 1780. Interior of bodice, showing lace, conical bodice shape and cords that hook onto buttons on the reverse of the gown. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

PC000071, robe a l’anglaise retroussee, c 1780. Interior of bodice, showing lace, conical bodice shape and cords that hook onto buttons on the reverse of the gown. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

 

When the gown was assessed for display, certain features of its condition suggested it had suffered from previous long term display.   Recently retired History Curator Michael Fitzgerald related to me that this would have been sometime prior to the 1970s–not coincidentally, before the museum hired Valerie Carson as the first textile conservator and before the advent of professional conservation more generally.  The burgundy silk fabric displayed extreme colour contrast between areas that had been exposed to light and those in protected areas, such as in the skirt folds and seam allowances.  Also, there were coarsely worked repairs along the sleeve seams, done in red thread.  Red thread bits could also be seen at centre front, where stitches had been placed to fasten the garment (historically, 18th c. gowns were fastened with pins).

PC000071 proper right sleeve seam, showing previous repairs and fading of the silk. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

PC000071 proper right sleeve seam, showing previous repairs and fading of the silk. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

 

Could this garment have been a burn victim of the free-spirited 1960s approach to display?  Perhaps an innocent bystander to experiments in fancy dress?  As exemplified below, period costume enthusiasts were happy to be documented wearing items of 19th century costume from the museum’s collection.  And once a gown was installed in the Colonial History gallery (those mannequins–so lifelike!) it was likely to stay frozen in time for at least a decade.  It was not uncommon for hastily executed repairs and touch ups to be carried out as a way of enabling both exhibition and use.

B. Richardson, R. Matthews and J. Whittaker wearing items of dress from Te Papa's History collection, 28 April 1963. Digitised image of photograph by P. Hedgeland. Copyright Te Papa.

B. Richardson, R. Matthews and J. Whittaker wearing items of dress from Te Papa’s History collection, 28 April 1963. Digitised image of photograph by P. Hedgeland. Copyright Te Papa.

 

The Colonial History gallery at the Dominion Museum, September 1968. Digitised image of a photograph by J.B. Turner. Copyright Te Papa.

The Colonial History gallery at the Dominion Museum, September 1968. Digitised image of a photograph by J.B. Turner. Copyright Te Papa.

Conservation treatment

The main goal of conservation treatment was to strengthen vulnerable areas so that the garment could withstand being dressed and displayed on a mannequin.  Tears in the gauze engageantes were stabilised with hairsilk (fine filaments removed from the outer layer of the silkworm cocoon, dyed examples nicely pictured in a recent profile of colleague’s work at the Costume Institute).  Old repairs to the sleeve seams were removed and replaced with more sympathetic stitching that enabled the sleeve circumference to be the appropriate dimension.  New silk thread was placed through the stitch holes still present along the garment’s original seam.  Whereas the previous repair (stitched in red thread) had taken up too much fabric, causing seam puckering, I used custom dyed silk to extend the cut edge of the sleeve’s dress fabric so that the dress fabric would not pull away from the seam once it was resewn (fabric was quite expensive in the 18th century so dressmakers could be pardoned for being stingy).  The fill is an alteration to original construction but is clearly recognizable as such and is completely reversible should it need to be removed or replaced in the future.

PC000071 proper right engageante, before treatment. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

PC000071 proper right engageante, before treatment. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

 

PC000071 sleeve engageante after conservation treatment. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

PC000071 sleeve engageante after conservation treatment. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

Sleeve seam during treatment. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

Sleeve seam during treatment. Photo by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

Mounting the dress ensemble

(by Sam)

After conservation, the garment was robust enough to try into onto a figure (note that this figure was neither of ours!).  I had already measured the garment and knew that a small dress form would be needed, but it was only at the moment of the first fitting that it became apparent how much the waist shape would need to be altered in order for the costume to fit the mannequin.

A modern dress form has a ‘natural’ waist that is oval in shape/cross section and on a size 8 figure measures about 63cm,  the waist measurement of our dress was just 54cm. Stays (corset) of the 18th century would have dramatically squashed the body shape- reducing the waist size but also pulling the waist into a cylindrical cross-section shape. The stays of this period also flattened the bust which was pushed upwards and as a result created the classic ‘heaving bosom’

To reduce the waist, I had to cut large sections of the modern fibreglass form away to create a starting point for mounting the dress. The bust and sides were cut out and filled with an archival foam.

The mannequin torso with the bust and waist cut away. A cotton cover is attached to the newly shaped form ready for padding to be stitched into place. Photo by Sam Gatey, copyright Te Papa.

The mannequin torso with the bust and waist cut away. A cotton cover is attached to the newly shaped form ready for padding to be stitched into place. Photo by Sam Gatey, copyright Te Papa.

 

The torso after it has been padded into the correct size and period shape. There is a cotton tube underskirt to hold out the multiple layers of net underskirts instead of legs! Photo by S. Gatley, copyright Te Papa.

The torso after it has been padded into the correct size and period shape. There is a cotton tube underskirt to hold out the multiple layers of net underskirts instead of legs! Photo by S. Gatley, copyright Te Papa.

 

The near-finished mount, complete with silk petticoat, jersey top cover and sleeve supports. There are strong small magnets attached to the front which will hold the bodice section in position- These are needed as the dress doesn’t have any buttons or other fastening. The opposing magnets will be placed on the outside of the garment. These should be difficult to see as they will be coloured to match the dress.

The near-finished mount, complete with silk petticoat, jersey top cover and sleeve supports. There are strong small magnets attached to the front which will hold the bodice section in position- These are needed as the dress doesn’t have any buttons or other fastening. The opposing magnets will be placed on the outside of the garment. These should be difficult to see as they will be coloured to match the dress. Photo by S. Gatley, copyright Te Papa.

 

Here we are carrying out the final fitting of both the dress to unsure that the garment is properly supported but not under any stress. At this point we can also adjust the final height of the ensemble and check the silhouette that has been created. Photo by S. Gatley, copyright Te Papa.

Here we are carrying out the final fitting of both the dress to ensure that the garment is properly supported but not under any stress. At this point we can also adjust the final height of the ensemble and check the silhouette that has been created. Photo by S. Gatley, copyright Te Papa.

 

The engageantes will be reattached in the coming weeks, and the dress will go on display in 2 months, come and see it on level 5 when it opens on September 10th.

A co-authored post by Anne Peranteau, Textile Conservator and Sam Gatley, Costume Mountmaker

10 Responses

  1. Karen

    Lovely Insight. Thanks! How long is the exhibit on for? I can’t seem to find dates on the website. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Lynley

    Thank you for this fascinating, detailed account of your work. It’s really interesting. One of my favourite things ever was the backstage in the textiles area tour you ran at the time of if the gay games. Really looking forward to seeing this on display, especially having read this. Thankyou!

    Reply
  3. Wendi Wicks

    Just wonderful to read this and learn about something that has always interested me since making my first dress. I must see this exhibition and drool some more

    Reply
  4. jocelyn thomson

    Looking forward to seeing this fantastic display,I love textiles,silk and fine linens are my favourites.I will feast my eyes upon your fine work in September regards Jocelyn Thomson

    Reply
  5. Daphne Erasmus

    Lovely to see these textiles, lucky Wellington.

    Reply
    • Anne Peranteau

      Thank you Daphne and thanks to everyone for the great feedback, we are looking forward to opening day and are excited to be displaying these beauties.

  6. Isaac

    I can’t wait to go to this exhibition.

    Reply
  7. Megan du Toit

    Really looking forward to seeing the “Spendour” exhibition in September. It is amazing how much work goes on behind the scenes to display a period dress – I had no idea.

    Reply
  8. Gabe

    How interesting! Look forward to seeing the display.

    Reply
    • jocelyn thomson

      Looking forward to seeing this fantastic display,I love textiles,silk and fine linens are my favourites.I will feast my eyes upon your fine work in September regards Jocelyn Thomson

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)