Monday, July 8, 2013

Saving Fragments of History--How I Became the Curator of my Town Museum's Fashion Display

Two months ago (May 2013), I went to my local library to return some books that I had used for a research paper for school. The library has a museum dedicated to the town's history upstairs, but it's always closed when I'm there. This time, however, it was open (because of a group of highschoolers working on the "Canstruction" project, where they stack donated canned foods into sculptures), so I decided to wander up there. I could never have anticipated what I saw before me: about 10 antique dresses, displayed on a large rectangular dais beneath a huge skylight. Ranging from the 1870s to the 1950s, the dresses were a lush example of the striking changes in costume through a relatively small, modern period of time. The collection showed the transition from heavy layers and structural undergarments, to freer, frivolous leg-flashing fashions.

However, there were some TERRIBLE issues with the display. Most of the dresses were disappointingly displayed on old, dusty, cracked, faded, hobbled-over mannequins--not the best approach if your target audience is children. Some of the dresses had recently (in the past 2 or 3 years) been moved onto newer, modern mannequins, with disproportionately modern bust and hip measurements, causing great stress and in many cases structural damage to the already weakened fibers of the dresses. A 1926 wedding dress, 1920's flapper dress, and 1910's white lawn graduation dress (all of which were on newer mannequins) were suffering through horrible rips and tears from that weird too-perky C cup. Two dresses were even displayed on WICKER DRESS FORMS...the horror!! The display cards on almost all of these dresses left a lot to be desired, and the styling was woefully off (apparently it was men who had set up the clothing display several decades ago).

Olive green silk bustle dress on a wicker dress form--I can only imagine the havoc this is wreaking on the lining.
Perhaps the worst offender--a 1906 wedding gown on a wicker dress form that was slowly tearing through the thin, fragile silk and lace on the bodice; THE HORROR!!
Yeah...that's not letting anyone sleep peacefully at night...dusty, doll-like, and a poor emphasis of the wonderfully lacey cotton gown.
Cracked, dusty "skin;" and far too many pins holding that skirt up, probably causing terrible stress on the bodice it's pinned onto. Also, note how the gloves have been sliced open to accommodate the mannequin's hand and then scotch-taped shut. ):
1910's Graduation dress experiencing structural damage from trying to be buttoned closed on a mannequin almost 10 inches too large across the chest--this just breaks my heart.
Beaded dresses shouldn't be displayed on mannequins, as the weight of the beads and decoration on such thin fabric, plus gravity, leads to a lot of irreparable damage.
Excessive shattering to the silk and T-back strap on this 1920's "Flapper" dress--avert your eyes!
The front of the "Flapper" dress experienced a lot of shattering due to the mannequin's too-large, too-perky boobs. Someone from the museum had stuffed the tears with large black ostrich feathers, to conceal the damage (but sadly, increasing the damage to the fragile silk fabric).
Evidence of silk shattering on the bodice of a 1926 wedding dress, displayed on a modern C-cup mannequin. You can see how the lace bodice is stretched tightly--too tightly--across the bust.
Pretty awkward styling right here, and the mannequin's vacant stare is doing nothing in making her more personable and realistic to children or students.
1900's hyacinth wool suit paired with a plastic bead necklace. Yup.
I decided I just had to do something about this. Not that I have experience with antique textiles, or designing museum displays, but because I understand the fragility and colossal rarity and importance of these vestiges of a "bygone time" and wish to represent that as accurately as possible in an accessible way that doesn't sacrifice the integrity of the garment.

I set up this project as an Independent Study course through William Paterson University's Honor's College (since my Honor's track is Humanities, with a specific focus on history). My goal with this project is to "makeover" the entire display: new mannequins or dress forms with appropriate body dimensions to support and display these dresses; new and more informative descriptive placards offering more of a context and social importance for these pieces; and a general cleaning up and restyling the displays to make them a true representation of the moment in time they are meant to portray and describe. Essentially, I will be the curator of the costume exhibit in my town's museum, an on-going position, but the immediate reorganization, preservation, and research will be for credit towards my minor/ Honor's track.

I will be writing blog posts describing my work with each garment that I tackle (long, descriptive, picture-heavy posts). The blog posts will appear on my blog, on the page at the top of my blog that says "Kearny History Museum," and on the Kearny History Museum's very own blog (which I have just created, to make this project accessible to the town). I hope my fellow sewing/blogging/history-loving community can support and help me along this project, offering knowledge and tips where my research fails. I also hope that you can enjoy and appreciate my journey to save and essentially preserve these fragments of history. (:

P.S. The photos in this post owe themselves to local North Arlington award-winning filmmaker and photographer Josh Pomponio. You can see his portfolio here.


  1. Wow, this is exciting! It sounds like a fascinating though difficult task! the damage to those dresses makes me want to cry. Slicing open gloves to fit on the mannequin! What blasphemy is this! Sigh. I can't wait to see what you do with it!

  2. This is so me, what I would have felt like, said, ect. I just started working at a small museum myself. We don't have much in the way of clothing, but what we have, I am trying to prevent this from happening. I am putting together an exhibit next year, and would like some suggestions for some inexpensive manikins to make or thrown together.
    Oh the horror and desecration committed by people who do not know better, that we few have to clean up and put to right.

    1. I'm so glad that you have the opportunity to remedy the ill-thought archival/display methods of others! I prefer using these dress forms ( ) not only because they are relatively cheap, but also because they allow much more in the way of customization, as the foam core can be carved down to fit the unique proportions of antique garments. For some tips on how to manipulate these and other display forms, check out my other post: