Behind the scenes at MTG Hawke’s Bay we’re busy preparing objects for the nine new exhibitions that will open to the public on 21 September 2013. Without wanting to give away too many surprises, this is a sneak peek at an object that is all dressed up and ready for display.
Green and black striped taffeta dress with black velvet ribbon and cotton lace trim, c. 1870, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 72/53.
With only the dress as our guide, our challenge was to recreate the body of the young Victorian bride that wore this garment on her wedding day around 1870 in Yorkshire, England. Unlike paintings or sculpture, costumes require a lot of work to prepare them for display. From flat storage to the display case, the garment must be translated into a three-dimensional object that is at once historically accurate, aesthetically pleasing, and fully supported and protected.
The first step in mounting a costume is selecting a mannequin. When making this selection numerous factors must be considered including the individual requirements of the costume, conservation concerns, interpretation, and exhibition design. Given that all costumes are different and no mannequin is perfect, the process of mounting a costume entails numerous alterations and adaptations.
When mounting a costume the most important thing to remember is that the garment dictates the support and not the other way around. Unlike dressmaking where the garment is made to fit the body, mounting a costume requires the conception and fabrication of a custom support. Given the small size of the dress, we immediately realised that our standard mannequins were too large for this petite Victorian bride and it was decided that we needed a bespoke mannequin based on the measurements of the dress. An order was placed for a torso to be sculpted with a tiny 63cm waist and a neck circumference of just 28 cm!
A customised mannequin at hand, we were still only half way to achieving the desired 1870s silhouette. Arms needed to be added and plenty of extra padding was required around the torso, however our first and most significant challenge was to restore volume to the skirt. In order to achieve the correct silhouette, we began by looking at similar dresses of the period. By the 1870s, the full crinoline – fashionable throughout the previous decade – had decreased considerably in size and the volume had shifted to the back of the dress in the form of a soft bustle. When examining the green dress it was clear that there was more fabric at the back than at the front, thus allowing for an extended derrière! Another vital clue was the hemline of the dress. Had we added too much volume at the front or at the rear, the hemline would have appeared uneven, therefore indicating that the silhouette was incorrect.
When worn in the 1870s, this dress would have come complete with corsetry and underskirts. Unfortunately it’s rare that these undergarments arrive at the museum, and when they do, they often become collection objects in their own right. As such, we needed to find a conservation-friendly solution that would mimic the silhouette created by period undergarments. A colleague suggested we try the tiered tulle petticoat that she’d made to go underneath her own wedding dress in the 1990s. This proved to be a perfect foundation and fortunately for us she’d held onto the pattern! The next couple of days were spent cutting, gathering, and drowning beneath layers of tulle. The tulle created the perfect volume but because it was somewhat scratchy, we decided to create a calico over-skirt to protect the garment. The final addition was of course the bustle, which we created with gathered polyester wadding.
Once the petticoats were in place, our attention shifted to the upper body. The most problematic area proved to be the arms as it was difficult to create a natural look whilst still providing the necessary support to the sleeves. Needless to say, stuffed calico tubes don’t hang in the same way as arms! To minimise creasing and give the effect of fullness without overstuffing the arms, we decided to create supportive sleeve puffs. For these we used calico-covered tulle which was gathered at both ends and stitched to the arms. The tulle had the advantage of being easily crushed and passed through the armholes, while still springing back into shape once in place.
Lizzie Wratislav working on sleeve supports. Green and black striped taffeta dress with black velvet ribbon and cotton lace trim, c. 1870, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 72/53.
The finishing touches included making sure that all the individual components of the mount were securely attached and were not going to sag between now and the end of the exhibition. Due to the fragile nature of textiles, in particular their sensitivity to light, this green wedding dress will only be on display for three months before being replaced by another from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection. Make sure you don’t miss out on seeing this one on display!