29 May 2016

Royal textiles shattered by time

From Standing Room Only, 2:25 pm on 29 May 2016

Jamie Metzger talks through the vast array of items in the contemporary fashion collection at the Otago Museum and gives tips for preserving your own treasured garments.

Pink taffeta boned bodice with green taffeta bows. Late 19th century. Eppinghoven Collection; Otago Museum Collection.

Pink taffeta boned bodice with green taffeta bows. Late 19th century. Eppinghoven Collection; Otago Museum Collection. Photo: Sonia Sly

The delicate silk dress is the most subtle apricot, replete with silvery-blue glass beads; but it is a shadow of its former self. Once worn by a granddaughter of the Belgian King, it now sits in a shallow box in an imperfect state; one armhole is partially shredded and all that holds it together is the stitching from a row of tiny hand sewn beads. 

The damage isn’t the result of wear and tear, but of time – almost a century’s worth.

While garments like this are deteriorating. the stories behind them are not lost. The item in question was worn as a bridesmaids dress and is part of a substantial collection of around 150 pieces gifted to Otago Museum by descendants of Louise Marie Alexandrine Von Eppinghoven, the granddaughter of King Leopold I.

Detail of apricot crepe de chine glass beaded dress. 1920s. Gift of C A Trotter; Otago Museum Collection.

Detail of apricot crepe de chine glass beaded dress. 1920s. Gift of C A Trotter; Otago Museum Collection. Photo: Sonia Sly

Along with two bodices the dress is carefully unwrapped for me, but as much as it calls from across the century I cannot touch it. It is rewrapped by the gloved hands of curators and collection officers at the Otago Museum. Handling them in any other way would be akin to setting them ablaze and watching them burn in slow motion.

“It’s the grease on our hands that causes the chemical reaction that is going to accelerate the deterioration,” says Jamie Metzger, Otago Museum’s Collection Officer for Humanities.

“You can see the shattering of the fabric, which is often a result of the use of metallic salts on garments [and] we see this a lot in nineteenth century items, particularly with satin,” Metzger says.

To prolong the life of these garments they must be handled with extreme care. Sadly the royal bridesmaid’s dress is in too fragile a state to either repair or exhibit, and further handling or even exposure to light will only stress the fibres.

Detail of pink taffeta boned bodice. Late 19th century. Eppinghoven Collection; Otago Museum Collection.

Detail of pink taffeta boned bodice. Late 19th century. Eppinghoven Collection; Otago Museum Collection. Photo: Sonia Sly

So why keep these kinds of garments if they cannot be displayed or viewed by the public?

“With textiles the wear and tear and stains are actually part of the history of the garment,” Metzger says.

For example the blood-crusted staining on the uniform jacket of a slain Gallipoli infantryman, the bullet hole in Admiral Nelson’s Trafalgar coat, or the smears of television makeup on an actor’s costume are elements that help to tell their story and the very thing that makes them fragile and their existence ephemeral.

“If we were going to repair or remove a stain we have to ask if it will affect the provenance and story behind it, so it’s our job as a museum to provide a snapshot of time so that these items can be used as a resource that can be discussed and communicated in the future.”

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