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New Life for Old Clothes

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After about 150 years, a dress that has been handed down through generations, worn on countless occasions and eventually donated to a theater costume collection might be considered to have exhausted its usefulness. Time to retire the well-worn garment, many would say.

Not so, according to a dozen Smith students and a couple of alumnae who spent laborious hours during a one-week workshop this month inspecting, restoring, reconstructing and revitalizing nine formal gowns dating from the 1850s to early 1900s.

The workshop, Historic Clothing Conservation and Display Techniques, was led by Colleen Callahan ’69, a costume and textile historian and costumer from Richmond, Virginia. Callahan led a similar workshop two years ago at Mount Holyoke College and was invited back to her alma mater this year to instruct students using the theater department’s Historic Clothing Collection, said Kiki Smith, professor of theatre, who oversees the costume collections.

In their restored state, the dresses will live on as historic artifacts and reference sources. Professor Smith will use the gowns in her theater costume courses, she said, to demonstrate techniques for making such garments, and to lend an authentic perspective to period theater productions. Also, the workshop restorations will be included in a large, ongoing project next week that is compiling digital photographs of historic clothing for the art department’s Insight image data bank, used by several college departments. The restored dresses will never be worn again.

Notable in the theater department’s collection—though not part of the restoration workshop—are two garments worn by Sylvia Plath ’55: her high school prom gown and her Girl Scout uniform, both circa 1940s—early 1950s.
The gowns in the restoration workshop were likely tailor-made for their original owners, said Callahan, and would have been considered very elite in their Victorian day, probably costing more than $500, a small fortune at the time. After years of make-shift alteration and handling during theater productions, these historic dresses were a long way from their original condition.

“Each one of these projects had different problems,” said Callahan. “Some of them needed complete restoration, some others needed stabilization.”

The gowns were all originally hand-sewn, in intricate patterns featuring long, flowing bodices, pleated waistbands and laced collars. To restore such detail, the students became necessarily close to the pieces, tightly hand-sewing extensive seams, recreating multi-pleated waists, and replacing worn material.

“When this workshop began, none of these could be used as resources or reference pieces,” said Callahan. “Now you can learn how they were put together, how a bustle-skirt worked, for example.”

What Callahan hopes the students learned in the workshop was an appreciation for the past and the clothes worn in a bygone era, advanced sewing and restoration skills and, not least, a sense of the social history that inspired such clothing.

“For one thing, we learned about the subjugation of women through corsets,” said Diana Chung, Mount Holyoke ’09, adding as she focused on a long row of stitches, “and I think we learned patience out of this.”

Emma Forrest ’11, who has participated in Civil War re-enactments and some theater costuming, plans to use what she has learned in the future. “I would like to consider professional costuming either in theater or re-enactments,” she said. “This has been a great experience to work on these dresses.”

Compared to other types of restoration, working with dresses and fragile fabrics is a precarious skill, noted workshop participant Nora Frankel ’08, who also restores wood frames in the Museum of Art’s conservation lab. “If you breathe on these materials they fall apart,” she said. “Wood is a lot more forgiving.”

The nine workshop restoration projects will become part of the college’s Historic Clothing Collection, an archive of more than one thousand garments and accessories—mostly donated by Smith alumnae—from a range of social classes and in many styles.

1/22/08   By Eric Sean Weld
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