Bust enhancement

This week we have been dressing mannequins to add to our Fashion Timeline display. The exhibition is a permanent feature of the museum but the individual garments on view have to be replaced regularly. We are working on replacing the pieces from the 1840s-70s which are now due for rotation. I noticed as we undressed a few of the bodices that there was significant padding to enhance the bust line. Coincidentally all four bodices that I examined yesterday had such padding. Because historical dresses were custom made for their wearer, they could easily be crafted to conceal any figure flaws and create the desired silhouette. These four examples clearly had such custom work. It is possible that some of the padding was added by later wearers as the dresses were altered.

The earliest example is from a dress that dates to the late 1840s or 1850. The bodice fastens with hooks and eyes up the back but features a deep opening at the center front. The padding appears to be original to the dress because the two round pads are added between the lining and the silk taffeta of the dress. From the interior you can see the round circles where the padding has been added. The bodice poses a challenge when dressing on the mannequin because we have specially designed forms that have generous bust measurements to accommodate the usual shape of a dress worn with a corset. We will have to find a dress form or mannequin with a relatively flat chest to accommodate the padding.

Plaid silk taffeta dress, ca. 1850 (KSUM 1984.16.15)
Interior of bodice of a plaid silk taffeta dress ca. 1850 (KSUM 1984.16.15). You can see the circles where padding has been added between the silk taffeta outer layer and the inner lining.

The second dress is an evening bodice from a dress of deep pink silk moiré from the 1860s. The dress was probably originally decorated with lace or other trimmings but is now stripped of its ornamentation. The bodice originally laced up the back but at some point hooks and eyes were added and now cover the original openings. A look inside the bodice reveals significant padding added to the bust. The padding is a separate layer added inside the lining so it may have been inserted during a later alteration, perhaps when the hooks and eyes were added.

The third dress is a magnificent ensemble of black silk faille, velvet and lace from ca. 1870. The interior of the dress is beautifully preserved and even includes a label from the New York dressmaker “Mme Douglass.” Unlike the other two dresses, this particular bodice is only padded on one side. The padding appears to be original because although just tacked in inside of the lining the fabric matches the rest of the lining.

The final bodice was discovered in storage while I was looking for additional pieces to add to the Fashion Timeline. The purple taffeta bodice from the 1860s lacks a skirt and is not in perfect condition. However, the fact that it is coming unstitched actually provides a glimpse into how the padding was added. The little pillows have been covered with a layer of waxed cotton which is coming away along the left side. This bodice has padding at the bust and also in the underarm area. Like the other evening bodice made of dark pink silk moiré, the padding may have been added by a later wearer who was not as well endowed as the original owner.

Purple 1860s bodice interior
An evening bodice from the 1860s showing how the padding has been attached at the left.

These bodices which were each custom made for their owner were fitted to the particulars of her body. Some of them had padding added when they were originally made in order to disguise figure flaws. Others may have been reworked to fit a new body. In many cases, these later alterations are as interesting aspect of the life of the garment as its original construction.

Sara Hume
Curator/Associate Professor


Venus on the Road

One of the highlights of our collection is “Venus” from Christian Dior’s 1949-50 Fall/Winter collection. The Museum at FIT recently requested to borrow her for their latest exhibition “Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color.” In deciding to lend pieces for exhibition we have to weigh the stress that traveling puts on the object against the value of the piece reaching a wide audience and contributing to the success of a fellow museum’s curatorial agenda. We try whenever we it is feasible to lend our pieces to other museums. Not only are we helping other museums we are enabling as many people as possible to benefit from seeing our pieces.

We have a couple of pictures taken when the dress was being packed to be shipped. “Venus” has a lot of volume and is stored on a dress form so she is never flattened. You can see that as she is laid out on a table to be wrapped in Tyvek and put in the box that she is still extremely dimensional. The bodice was stuffed with a pillow and her skirts were filled out with a couple of petticoats even when she was laid “flat.”

We also have pictures of “Venus” installed in the exhibition. Isn’t she stunning?! Don’t miss the chance to see her if you are in New York. The exhibition will be on view through February 5, 2019!

Sara Hume
Curator/Associate Professor

Preparing the Keckley Quilt for Shipping

The Keckley Quilt is one of the pieces from our collection that we get the most questions about. For more information about the quilt see this earlier post. The quilt is currently on exhibition at the Indiana State Museum. In order to prepare the quilt to travel to Indiana, it required the coordinated efforts of several staff members. Because of the large size of the quilt and its poor condition we can’t bring it out for researchers and the general public who often inquire whether they might be able to see it. These pictures give a sense of the scale of the quilt and the attention demanded for its care and packing.

Our exhibition designer/preparator, Jim Williams made the crate specifically to hold the quilt for its travels. Before the quilt could be packed it was laid out on a table in our conservation lab, so that we could perform a condition report. An update to the condition report was performed when the quilt arrived in Indiana. This evaluation of the piece’s condition allows us to determine if the piece is deteriorating and also make sure that it has not been damaged during the course of its travels. After it was assessed, the entire quilt was covered in order to protect it as it is rolled. A large tube which had been covered with a protective barrier and muslin was laid over the quilt, which was rolled around it. The quilt has fringe edging all four sides which were carefully smoothed out to ensure that they lay flat before the quilt was rolled.

The quilt will be on exhibit at the Indiana State Museum through February 19, so we hope everyone who is interest is able to see it before the exhibition closes.

Sara Hume
Curator/Associate Professor

Keckley Quilt on Exhibition in Indiana

One of the most requested pieces in our collection is the Keckley Quilt. This beautiful quilt was made in between 1862-1880 out of silks from dress fabric. The quilt is attributed to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a dressmaker who worked for Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley was born a slave but she bought her freedom using money she earned as a dressmaker. She moved to Washington, DC where she served as a dressmaker to prominent women including not only Mrs. Lincoln but also the wives of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Assuming that the dress was made out of scraps of dress fabric from the pieces she had sewn for her clients, it is possible that the dress includes materials that went into Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses.

This quilt is extremely fragile because many of the pieces of silk have shattered. The beautiful, dimensional embroidery contributes to the quilt’s beauty but also adds to the inherent fragility of the piece. As a result of the piece’s fragile condition and large size, we are unable to bring the piece out for visitors who frequently request to see it. The quilt is also rarely brought out for exhibition, so we wanted to make sure and get the word out that the piece is now on view, albeit in Indianapolis at the Indiana State Museum (https://www.indianamuseum.org/)  The quilt is included in an exhibition of quilts related to Lincoln entitled “Lincoln in Quilts: Log Cabins, Flags and Roses” which is on exhibition through February 19, 2018.

Sara Hume, Curator/Associate Professor

Chanel in the Jazz Age

The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cooper Hewitt have collaborated on an exhibition, “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” which is currently on view in New York and will later be on view in Cleveland from Sat, Sept. 30, 2017 through Sun, Jan. 14, 2018. For this exhibition they requested the loan of several pieces from the Kent State University Museum. One of the pieces that is being lent is an amazing dress by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel from 1926 which is made of long blue ombré fringe (KSUM 1997.71.7 ab).

Because the dress is complicated and no one from the Kent State University Museum would be accompanying it to Cooper Hewitt, back in March, members of the staff of the Kent State University Museum traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art to meet with the staff there to discuss how to dress the mannequin.

The process of dressing this piece is challenging both because it requires decision making about how to properly assemble the pieces and because the fringe is unwieldy, requiring the participation of at least two people. The dress has a base layer of silk crepe with a long strip of fringe attached to a band of the crepe. When put on the body the strip of fringe has to be wrapped around a couple of times then fastened with a hook-and-eye at the right shoulder. We can be fairly confident of the correct way to assemble the dress because there photographs by Edward Steichen of Marion Morehouse wearing the dress. These photographs were taken in 1926 and show both the front and back.

The dress is stunning and one of the highlights of our collection. The complexity of the dress is difficult to see when it is displayed fully dressed on the mannequin. These images of it being dressed highlight the challenges of this particular dress and the ingenuity of its design.

Sara Hume, Curator


Pauline Trigère in the 1940s

It has been a long time since we have posted anything to this blog so this is a long overdue post. We just opened an exhibition about “Fashions of the Forties: From World War II to the New Look” and many of the pieces have interesting stories. For this post, I will focus on the work of Pauline Trigère, who actually had a personal history with the museum.

Trigère was born to Russian-Jewish parents in Paris in 1912 and spent her childhood in France. She began her career working for the couture house Martial et Armand. Along with her mother and husband and children, she left Paris in 1937 on the eve of the war. She first found work in New York working for Hattie Carnegie, but she quickly began designing for herself.

The Kent State University Museum has two pieces from the early years of her career. We have a short navy cape from 1941 and a green and black wool jacket from 1942. The navy cape has a brightly striped lining that is nearly concealed when the cape hangs straight.

Kent State University has a long relationship with Pauline Trigère who was friends with the Museum’s founders, Shannon Rodgers and Jerry Silverman. The Museum had an exhibition of her work in 1994, which she attended. In addition to contributing a number of her garments, Trigère also donated her sketchbooks and archives to Kent State. The sketchbooks are now held by the June F Mohler Fashion Library which lent several sketches for the exhibition. One of the sketches shows a almost plain black dress with matching black cape lined with a brightly striped fabric. This design is clearly reminiscent of the short cape featured in the exhibition and dates to 1948. Trigère designed by draping directly on the form rather than first sketching out ideas meaning hese sketches were done by a sketch artist from finished garments rather than by Trigère herself.

Sara Hume, Curator

Front or back

Now that we have been at our 1920s inventorying project for over a month, we have discovered a number of interesting trends and encountered unexpected problems. We have realized, for instance, that the most popular colors for dresses besides black and white were pale green and a pinky-orangey shade which an earlier museum employee frequently described as “shrimp” as in “evening dress of shrimp georgette.” (If our museum had a café I would push to offer a dish called shrimp georgette because it frankly sounds delicious.) We have also realized how difficult it is to distinguish the front from the back of 1920s dresses.

Determining which is the front of a dress is surprisingly common difficulty. In fact we have an earlier blog post involving this very problem. For 19th-century dresses, the problem is uncommon because of the close fit of the bodice with darts as well as the trains and bustles in the skirt. However, the problem creeps in during the 1910s and 20s as the fit loosens and the bust is de-emphasized. In general, dresses from the 1910s are so intricately fastened with snaps and hooks and eyes (and more snaps) that there is a clear front and back. On the other hand the very complexity of the dresses often makes it difficult to figure out what parts are going to end up where, until it is on the form. This very problem crept in with this remarkable dress by Lucile.

Lucile 2004.28.4 frontback
Silk taffeta and tulle evening dress, Lucile, ca. 1918, KSUM 2004.28.4.

After some confusion we positioned the waist stay so that it fastened in the front. The sash wraps around the bodice and fastens with hooks and eyes at the hip. The skirt is completely asymmetrical with layers of silver lace on one hip and a fold that makes it slant to one side. The dress is in fragile condition but in far better shape than any of our other pieces by the designer. After we photographed the dress, we discovered another dress by Lucile which had a very similar construction for the bodice. However, on the second dress, which was too fragile to mount on a dress form and photograph, the bodice unambiguously fastened in the back. After seeing this we concluded that the peach confection we had just photographed had been dressed backwards! Oops. The dress is so fragile we are loath to put it through the stress of being dressed again, but we really should correct our mistake. The picture here shows the dress on backwards, although I think the error is understandable.

As you get into the 1920s the problem becomes rampant. The cut of the dresses are so simplified that they become little more than 2 rectangles sewn together with openings for the neck and arms. The neck opening is generally either rounded or a V. Often the only difference between the front and the back is the depth of the neck opening. To make it more difficult to determine front and back, very few dresses have any tags or labels inside. We have a few tells we look for to help us figure things out: Where are the sweat stains in the underarms? Which side has the deeper neck opening? (although some dresses have deeper neckline at the back, so this one can be tricky) Is there shirring at the shoulders? (shirring is rows of gathering threads, which were generally done on the front of the dress), Is the skirt longer in the back? (the hemlines are often very irregular that it is not as simple as it seems).

Here are a few examples of some of our dresses seen from the front and the back. In an effort to maximize efficiency as we photograph all of the dresses from the 1920s, we usually only take pictures of the front. And as you can see from these examples, little information is gained by seeing the back. If anyone else knows how to figure these things out we would love to hear from you in the comments!