Te Papa’s textile conservator Anne Peranteau runs through the process involved in preparing a much-loved garment for public display.
In March, the exhibition When Dreams Turn to Gold: The Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards will open at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG).
The Benson & Hedges event was New Zealand’s premier fashion competition, running for 34 years from 1964 to 1998; winning a top honour has been described by the New Zealand Fashion Museum as analogous to securing an Oscar for the country’s fashion designers.
Curators Lucy Hammonds and Dr Natalie Smith have selected around 20 winning garments for the exhibition to showcase the span and scope of designers’ work from the 1960s to the 1990s, alongside their personal stories of innovation and success.
Five of the ensembles will come from Te Papa’s collection.
One of these, Dual Outlook, by designers Deborah Crowe and Kim Fraser, in the words of Lucy Hammonds, “captured a meeting point between the worlds of contemporary art, design innovation and fashion, and was recognised as such through general media coverage as well as in magazines such as Art New Zealand.
“It represents the most recent Supreme Award winner in the exhibition, dating from one of the final years of the award. It became a work that was emblematic of this period of the awards, and was used in the publicity material surrounding what was then the Smokefree Fashion Awards.”
When assessing Dual Outlook to determine its requirements for display, I was struck by the inherent tension between fluidity and rigidity in the materials.
For example, the incredible pleated skirt component of the outfit is made with a polyester/copper laminate fabric manufactured by 3M; it has 10 pleats per inch.
These materials and techniques impart an amazing surface texture and give the fabric a strong directionality, both visually and in terms of how much and in what way it can move.
This component of the garment has been named a flysheet accessory by the designers to invoke the metaphor of a tent.
This has to do with the overall concept for the work which is about creating “headspace” around the body in an increasingly technological world.
Likewise the “visor” fits over the head and is given structure by the use of nylon monofilament and copper wire.
I noticed when I examined the visor that its lower edges featured a band of brittle, dark yellow material that was actively flaking off and shedding bits in the storage box.
In search of information on this material, I contacted the designers and learned that the material was Mobilon, a polyurethane clear elastic tape that had been selected to seal the warp ends of the nylon.
It was chosen for its (formerly) less visible appearance.
Polyurethane was developed as a replacement for rubber at the beginning of WWII.
The yellowing and embrittlement of the Mobilon tape is typical of the reaction that takes place as ultraviolet light and oxygen (ageing, in other words) cause the single bonds in the material to be converted into double bonds that reflect light in the region around 570 nanometers (yellow).
The process cannot be reversed by any type of conservation treatment.
In deciding what to do about the problem it was critical to discuss the purpose of the material and its current appearance with the designers.
The lower edges of the visor correspond to the cut ends of the loom width of woven material used to make it.
At the time this component of the work was woven, it would have been important to stabilise the nylon monofilament to restrict movement/unravelling once the piece was removed from the loom.
The copper wire warps were then plied together to join them below the cut edge, while the Mobilon secured the monofilament.
They confirmed that the yellowing had changed the appearance of the garment so that it was no longer consistent with their original intent.
It was therefore decided to completely remove the material and to replace it with a reversible stitching method where needed.
Sticky adhesive residue that had gathered dust was removed from the monofilament with a cotton swab using a solvent.
This approach may seem at first to be at odds with “conservation”, in that I was an agent of loss, acting to remove an original part of an object.
On the other hand, the NZ Conservators Code of Ethics also acknowledges the concept of an object’s “true nature”, that is, the evidence of how it was made and used, and other aspects that must be preserved.
The American Institute for Conservation states in their code of ethics that conservators’ actions must be guided by an “informed respect for the cultural property…and the people or person who created it.”
This can mean an originating community’s directive, or a living artist’s intentions, clearly communicated, can (and, where possible, must) indicate the true nature of an object and therefore the subsequent course of treatment.
Decisions around unstable materials vis-à-vis artist’s intent for a work are ongoing in museums and conservation labs globally and are becoming increasingly complex as works incorporate more unstable and digital components.
For example, the international group INCCA was founded in 1999 to document artists’ materials and processes as well as their views on how the deterioration of their work should be addressed (see also Ben Lerner’s article “The Custodians” about dilemmas at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York).
The treatment would not and could not have taken place without the collaborative discussion in the conservation lab with Deborah Crowe, and communication via email with both Kim and Deborah.
It was rewarding to work this way and to learn more about the concept and materials behind Dual Outlook.
The pair are currently working on a collection of high end luxurious womenswear and will re-launch the FRASER CROWE label this year.
The garments will be cut with minimal waste, utilising digital prints that combine architectural references with organic constructions, again producing work that combines their respective talents and cultural perspectives.
A Marriage of Art and Fashion in New Zealand: The Collaborative Work of Deborah Crowe and Kim Fraser by Mark Kirby. Fiber Arts magazine, Jan/Feb 1999, p. 41-45