Textile conservator Anne Peranteau, and costume mount maker Sam Gatley describe the process of preparing two 18th century dresses for display in an exhibition.
Historic dress, historic problems
Anne Peranteau – 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 exhibtion for 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.
Te Papa’s gown shares these features, and includes silk Mechlin lace edging around the neckline and silk and gauze engageantes, or sleeve ruffles.
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 explained 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).
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 shown in the photograph 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.
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.
Mounting the dress ensemble
Sam Gatley – 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 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