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Garment Care Through the Eyes of a Conservator

Many artifacts in the Western Development Museum’s collection appear to be in almost pristine condition when our visitors see them under display lights, or they are taken out of storage after a long period of rest. To a Conservator, on the other hand, many indistinguishable problems are noticed quite quickly. Conservators are trained to spot everything from the most minor of condition issues to the most major problems that threaten the very life of the artifact.

Featured here is a dress that dates from c. 1945, WDM artifact ID WDM-1987-S-119. We believe this to be a traditional Russian wedding dress. It looks to be in wonderful condition and could immediately be put on display. But on closer inspection there are minor problems that would a Conservator would want to address before that could happen in order to preserve its integrity and keep it stable.

The fabric of the dress is made of nylon (the blue fabric) and the white sheer fabric is rayon. The fabric on the top of the head piece is made of white silk. The use of these materials are clues about when the dressed dates to. Silk has been used for millennia, but rayon and nylon are both new materials. Rayon first came onto the market after the First World War in the mid 1920s, it was a cheaper alternative to silks. Nylon came onto the market in 1939, also as an alternative to silk. The use of these two fabrics indicate the piece dates to after nylon’s availability. The brass detail on the dress and the detachable cuffs look to be in good condition, but on closer inspection it is found to be pulling away from the fabric. The brass foil thread detail is missing from the dress. One area where this was particularly visible is on top of the shoulders.

The jewellery on the headdress is made from a variety of materials, including plastic. On first view the jewellery appears to be in good shape. When examined more closely it is revealed that much of the finish on the plastic beads is coming off, exposing the base bead, and flakes of the finish are lying around the beads. Some of the finishes on the jewellery pieces have also tarnished in some areas and the finish has also come off them as well. There would need to be a lot of consolidation and research done to stabilise the plastics for display so that they don’t deteriorate further. There are two elastic bands used to hold the headdress in place, one for under the chin and the other for behind the head. Even with good conservation techniques, this elastic will break down and become brittle over time. There is not much we can do to prevent the breakdown but keeping the elastic relaxed will help preserve it for a while longer.

For now, the dress and matching pieces are being rehoused in collection storage at the WDM Corporate Office. The headdress is in a box of its own with the beads lying flat so any further flaking pieces can be noted, and all fragments can be found in connection to its original location. The dress will be placed in hanging storage, but with a padded hanger and a cotton muslin dust cover to prevent any pulling of the detailing by other garments around it. The fabrics of the dress are strong and durable and can withstand being on a hanger. In the future, this outfit could be washed and much of the detail stabilised but for now it will be preserved, and all efforts will be made to prevent further deterioration.

By: Mark Anderson
Conservator

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