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Sunae Park Evans: First Lady of costume conservation

Sunae Park Evans probably knows Martha Washington’s measurements better than anyone, including her own seamstress. As the senior costume conservator at the museum, Evans cares for the museum’s costumes and textiles, from the First Ladies collection to the Muppets.

A woman wearing a yellow sweater and wearing purple gloves carefully manipulates the fabric of a beautiful white gown with delicate flower and sequin details. The gown is one-shoulder strap. It was worn by First Lady Michelle Obama. The dress is on a form.

When I visited the Textile Conservation Lab in early March, Evans and her team were preparing costumes and textiles for the museum's new exhibitions opening on June 28. Evans has been with the Smithsonian Institution for many years and, with two master's degrees and a doctorate in clothing and textiles, still can't believe that she is caring for America's most iconic artifacts. Evans is highly qualified to care for these sensitive collections, and her training is important because preserving textiles is tricky work. In many ways, Evans is part history sleuth and part master sculptor.

A photo of the back of a pink gown on a form. The pink gown has long sleeves with elaborate white ruffles. There are also ruffles and a shawl-like cowl around the neckline. The gown has white and light green details that appear to be interweaving ivy or ribbons.

For example, when Evans approaches a gown from the First Ladies collection, she wants to know how the clothing interacted with the original owner’s body. What were this person's proportions? How did this person move? Did this person stand in a particular way? To answer these questions, Sunae studies the time period and pays attention to primary sources like paintings, photographs, and other images. Sometimes Evans can display a garment with little modification on a ready-made conservation form (mannequin). In other cases, she must create forms from scratch out of conservation-approved materials, using a polyethylene foam called "Ethafoam," polyester batting, cotton stockinette, and finishing fabric. Evans carves the foam, creating a torso that closely matches the shape of the costume, and then adds the batting over the foam to fill out and properly support the costume. The stockinette covers and holds the batting in place. Finally, a finishing fabric is sewn in place to cover the exposed areas of the mannequin, completing the display.

In a display case, a long pink gown is displayed on a form. It has white ruffles around neck and wrists. There is a bit of a train.

Evans says that caring for the First Ladies gowns is one of the most challenging parts of her job. Some of the collection has been on display since 1914, which means that Evans is always on the lookout for fading dyes and failing materials. Evans and her team have to hand-carve the forms used to support these dresses from the 18th and 19th centuries in order to match the ideal shape women created with foundations like corsets to mold their bodies to fit the fashion of their day. In addition, because First Ladies from the late 19th century such as Mary Todd Lincoln and Frances Cleveland had several different bodices to pair with one skirt, Evans sometimes has to make several different torsos to model one outfit's separate pieces.

Small clamshell purse with gem clasps. Covered in shiny white diamond-like stones and white-almost-pink pearls.

The last time I had lunch with Evans, she had recently returned from a trip to the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages, a Smithsonian Affiliate located in Stony Brook, New York. She had given a lecture about her recent work with First Lady Mamie Eisenhower's rhinestone and pearl purse for the 1953 inaugural balls. Designed by Judith Leiber, it is part of the museum's exhibition Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber's Handbags and the Art of Gerson Leiber. Partners will run through June 4.

Meagan Smith is the Program Assistant for National Museum of American History Affiliations.