In my last post, I described conservation work undertaken on the 1868 brown velvet dress of Margaret Maria, Lady Verney. The plan, to display the dress as it appeared in a well-known portrait of her at Claydon House, would also require both an appropriate mannequin and a bit of costume reproduction.
Customizing a mannequin
A papier-mâché form closest in size to the dimensions of the dress had already been ordered as a base. When it arrived at the studio, it became clear that the shoulders were a bit wider than Lady Verney’s, and that this width would need to be reduced to avoid strain on the garment. So now I had to take a hacksaw to a very expensive form!
After surgery, I re-fitted the canvas cover, and began padding out the base. Polyester fiberfill was attached to the canvas base cover in layers, to build up the correct dimensions to both support the dress and to take the place of the period undergarments that would have been worn in 1868. Historical research suggested that a small bustle would have been worn under the skirt of this style of dress, so additional padding was attached at the back of the figure to create the same effect on the skirt drape. (If this display form had been needed for use with more than one garment, an alternative approach would have been taken, using a separately constructed pad that could be tied on to the form before mounting the dress.)
When the majority of the custom padding was completed, a top cover of heavyweight polyester jersey was constructed to provide a smooth base for the dress itself. This cover was draped directly on the form, fitted tightly, and attached while under tension
After test fittings of the dress, I added further padding under folds in the dress fabric (see arrows on the photo of the mannequin’s back). This padding was not intended to mimic the body contours, but rather to cushion and support the fabric, preventing creases from setting and reducing drag on the garment structure over time on display.
Building a petticoat
To support the dress skirt a quilted petticoat was constructed. Here you can see it being designed on the mannequin. When complete, it had a drawstring at the waist and could be removed. Much of the sewing on the petticoat was done by Helen Minocki Brooks, who was then working at Claydon House, and came to the studio to assist with the project.
I made arms for the mannequin from washed muslin stuffed with polyester fill. These were made to be removable, so that the dress could be put on with less strain.
Lastly, to support a fold of in the skirt, in a drape similar to that shown in the Richmond portrait, Ksynia Marko, Director of the Studio, came up with the idea of ending one arm with two discs of acid-free card, covered in muslin. I sewed these on, attaching the outer disc along two-thirds of its circumference. This left a gap between the two discs, into which a skirt fold could be tucked, protected by a small piece of Mylar. To avoid permanent creasing, this was only to be used occasionally, and for short periods while on display.
Well, the dress was looking good, but the ruffled wrap (known as a fichu) worn with it in the Claydon portrait was no longer in the collection. I undertook to reproduce a similar one, from cotton voile. Historical research suggested that this was most likely to have been an ‘Antoinette’ fichu, a style that was fashionable at the time of the portrait, with long ties crossing in front and hanging down in the back.
I needed to make over 27 metres of bias ruffle! But it came out pretty sweetly.
And here she is, displayed below her portrait in Claydon House.
I highly recommend a visit to the blog of the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio, in Norfolk, to see some of their fantastic work on historic items.
And if you enjoy a dose of (mostly American) history with your conservation, be sure to check out the blog at Museum Textile Services, in Massachusetts. The director, Camille Myers Breeze, is both a well-respected conservator, and a real history buff.