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Behind the scenes in the costume collection

Editor’s note: This essay by guest blogger and maker Allison Thurman is adapted with permission from the Center for the Future of Museums Blog.CFM is an initiative of the American Association of Museums that helps museums explore the cultural, political and economic challenges facing society, and devise strategies to shape a better tomorrow. For more information on museums and the future, visit

I like to make things. I’m a looker and a doer, too—I visit museums, I fence (both historical and modern sport). But a big part of my time and enthusiasm goes into creating historically accurate clothing. Happily I’m not the only one, and have found a number of good groups of people in the SCACostume Society of America, and International Costumers Guild to brainstorm and play with.

This is no casual hobby. My vacation time is spent going to different academic conferences, like the Florence, Italy costume colloquium in 2008, and the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress. At these events museum curators, academics and amateurs share research and trade notes on various aspects of costume and textile history, from details of construction and design to histories of manufacture and trade. I’ve given over a significant portion of my modest apartment to fabric, sewing machine and storage for my creations. I have an extensive book collection and seek more obscure sources, like inventories, when needed for a particular project. Of course, the primary sources for a lot of my interests are locked up in museums and archives, in storage, not on public view. From my point of view, it’s great that this material exists in public institutions, but only if it can be accessed by the public!

Since my teen years I’ve been particularly fascinated by Mariano Fortuny’s pleated silk tea gowns. It’s not just the luxe, timeless look, but the mystery behind the pleating process that intrigued me—patent documents exist but aren’t entirely clear, and each gown had to be sent back to the Fortuny atelier in Venice for re-pleating every time it was cleaned.

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Teagown by Mario Fortuny in the museum's collections.

Over the years I’ve read all of the readily available books on the designer, and have seen a few of the pleated gowns behind glass in museums but some of my questions regarding construction could only be answered by close examination inside and out. After discovering that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History had one tea gown, I decided to ask if I could visit behind the scenes to satisfy my curiosity.

I was a museum volunteer in the past and have visited museum storage spaces before, but this was the first time I’d ever made an appointment to handle a delicate item and I wasn’t sure they’d say yes. I’m not trained in museum studies nor do I have any “academic cred,” but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.

Finding who to ask was fairly easy. I looked up the dress on the museum's website, and browsed backwards to find the curator in charge of the department that held it. My email was fairly formal but concise, simply asking if I could make an appointment and including the catalog number of the dress (taken from the website) to ensure we both knew what I was talking about.

Once the curator said a visit was permitted, I went about scheduling (a month in advance) and asking specifically what kind of handling, if any, would be allowed. Sketchbook with pencil and a cloth measuring tape was permitted, as was supervised handling with cotton gloves. Photography was permitted as well, as long as it was for research only.

The day of the actual appointment I was a bit nervous, but the curator Nancy Davis was friendly and informal, which put me at ease. She asked me about my research as she took me to get my visitors pass.

She had pulled the dress in advance, laying it flat under tissue paper on a muslin-covered table in one of the costume storage rooms. It was accompanied by two other gowns that were also pleated and hence derived in style from Fortuny’s work. The curator had pulled them simply because she thought I might be interested!

Photo of lacing by Allison Thurman.

There is truly nothing like The Real Thing. I was able to learn a great deal about the light weight and “hand” of the silk even through cotton gloves, and examination of the inside neckline and seams revealed some of the coveted construction details. Even evidence of wear (frayed trim, faded, flattened sections) told a story about how the dress was worn and repaired—and when it wasn’t. Measurement of the tiny pleats suggested that the pleating was done by industrial processes, rather than by hand.

The visit created as many questions as answers. As the Smithsonian’s dress is sleeveless, I still don’t know how the sleeved gowns were formed—were they pleated and added before or after construction? How wide were the fabric sections unpleated?

I was deeply flattered that Dr. Davis took time out of her busy schedule not only to pull the Fortuny out of storage and meet with me, but took extra time to present other garments and ask me about my research. After my time with the gown, I was also given access to the “additional information” files that the Smithsonian keeps on each designer, and these gave me leads for future research in other institutions.

I recognize that no matter my enthusiasm for a subject, museum staff have more experience and knowledge of the history and context of their collections than I ever could.

Allison Thurman is a maker and doer in the D.C. metro area.