A Tribute to Grandpa: The History of the Ukrainian Shirt

I want to dedicate this post to my grandpa, Al Traaseth, who passed away one year ago this week. Grandpa was an inspiring person. Adventurous, kind, generous, open-minded, a world traveler, a polyglot. He was a Russian and Latin teacher, involved from the beginning with the Concordia Language Villages in Moorhead, Minnesota. He brought all of his 14 grandkids, including me, to Washington, D.C. when we were around 10 years old. He encouraged us to try new things, especially food (in my case, escargot. Thanks, grandpa, I love it to this day!), and go to new places, and I think his example had a big impact on who I am today: an adventurous traveler who is curious about the world and loves languages, food, and the humanities. He even taught me how to say “I love you” in Russian so I could surprise my Russian-speaking boyfriend.

When I was growing up, there were a few things in my parents’ house that my grandpa had brought back from his travels: a Russian doll in traditional dress, some wooden elephants from Thailand. My mom would tell me about where they came from and how my grandpa had gone to this place or that. There were stories about him giving his shoes to a guy in Haiti and eating food with the tour guides in India so he could eat the real spicy stuff instead of the toned down American stuff. When I was in middle school or high school, my mom showed me another souvenir that my grandpa had brought back for her in the 1970s: an embroidered Ukrainian shirt. Of course, I quickly stole this from my mom’s closet and started wearing it. I wore it for probably a good 6 or 7 years. Alas, by the end of college it no longer fit, and I had to retire it (after almost tearing some seams trying to get it on).

ukrainian shirt moms 2 copy cropped

This shirt was the perfect fine, lightweight cotton and was so comfortable! It had a good life.

Luckily, the saga of the Ukrainian shirt was not over, and a couple years ago my amazing talented mom surprised me for Christmas with a new shirt she had made, on which she had replicated the embroidery from the old one. Thanks, mom! It is so awesome. Also, let’s all just take a second to appreciate the bajillion hours my mom spent making and cross-stitching that shirt. Super awesome.

IMG_5591

An exact copy of the original embroidery, down to every last detail. Even the tassels!

IMG_5572 cropped

Me in my awesome Ukrainian shirt made by mom!

My mom didn’t even realize that I had written a paper about Ukrainian shirts for my Dress and Textiles in World Cultures class at FIT, so I was super into Ukrainian shirts (almost to the point that I wanted to make my own and wear it like these badass ladies from the 70s. Only minus the hairstyles…)

ukrainian shirt 60 cropped

Folk dress fashion of the 1970s. The authors of Ukrainian Embroidery model their work

So, for your reading pleasure, here is a slightly abridged version of my paper The Ukrainian Shirt: Historical Handcraft and Enduring Cultural Symbol:

The story of the Ukrainian shirt encompasses a long history of textile production, garment construction, embroidery, spiritual beliefs and traditional customs that attest to the Ukrainian peoples’ rare ability to retain a strong cultural identity despite changing political boundaries and various invasions. The shirt has been worn in what is present-day Ukraine since the time of the Scythians in the seventh century B.C.E. Both men and women wore leather shirts with sleeves as they roamed the steppes between the Danube and Don rivers as nomadic cattle breeders. By the twelfth century, when the people of Ukraine lived a settled life and a feudal system had begun in Ancient Rus’, the Ukrainian “folk dress” that we recognize today was already starting to develop, recognizably different from the rest of Europe and the east. Men and women of all social classes wore folk dress, and the shirt was the basic garment, always worn belted, over which various types of pants or overskirts were worn.

Shirts were made of homespun linen of flax and hemp. The cut of the shirt was the same for men and women, but women’s shirts were longer, almost down to the feet. A long width of fabric was folded in half over the shoulders and straight pieces were sewn onto the sides below the armholes, as the homespun was not wide enough to go around the body. Narrow tubular sleeves were set into the armholes, and the sleeves were often longer than the arm in order to cover the hand in cold weather. The collarless shirts had a high neck and a slit in the middle of the chest, fastened with a button at the top. Embroidery already had a long history in Ancient Rus’, and shirts were often embroidered in red around the neck and front slit.

By the sixteenth century, the term Ukraine, meaning “borderland,” began to replace the name of Rus’ and differentiation in dress based on social class became more common. The wealthy classes started to dress more like the Lithuanian, Polish, and Hungarian ruling elite in more tailored, low-necked costumes, while the rural populations, mainly enserfed villagers, continued to wear folk costume. While dress among social groups changed, the shirt was the universal daily garment for all classes, differing only in decoration and quality of material. The shirt was still made of homespun linen, but was now usually painstakingly bleached white, and ornamentation was gradually enriched. For men, three types of shirt construction were possible, different styles being more common in different regions.

ukrainian shirt pics_5

Three types of men’s shirts: a) shirt with insets, b) Transcarpathian shirt, c) “Chumak” shirt similar to the primitive tunic style of Ancient Rus’. From History of Ukrainian Costume.

Women’s shirts were also made in two styles. The first was similar to the man’s shirt with shoulder insets, but with wider sleeves. The high neck was gathered into a narrow neckband, and a string with small tassels was threaded through two loops at the center of the neckband and tied in a bow.

ukrainian shirt pics_6

Women’s shirt with drawstring, embroidered neck band, embroidered sleeves with insets at shoulder, and two types of cuffs. From History of Ukrainian Costume.

The second style, called “Carpathian,” had unbroken sleeves. The shoulder insets and sleeve were cut in one and sewn to the front and back widths up to the neck, like what we now call the “raglan sleeve.” The sleeves were very full and slightly flared towards the bottom, and the neckline was gathered with a drawstring that tied at the front. Women’s shirts were still long, reaching the ankle, and the sleeves were open, not drawn together at the wrist, and of normal sleeve length or shorter. Sometimes the sleeves were made of a different material than the front and back, such as cotton muslin or a finer linen. All shirts and other garments were cut to waste as little cloth as possible. Cuffs and collars were added in the nineteenth century, but some shirts were still worn without them. Embroidery continued to be the principal embellishment on shirts for men and women.

ukrainian shirt 27 copy

Construction of women’s raglan sleeve style shirt. From Traditional Designs in Ukrainian Textiles.

Both embroidery and textile weaving and production were done in the homes of Ukrainian peasant families. Until the late nineteenth century, almost every Ukrainian household produced its own textiles, and in some remote areas of the Carpathian mountains, they still do. Creating the homespun linen was a long process, from planting and harvesting the flax to wetting it with spring or well water, drying it in the sun to be bleached, spinning the yarn and finally weaving the textile. The weaving was usually done on a treadle loom. By the eighteenth century weaving was also done on a larger scale as textile centers developed, particularly in the Chernihiv region. Private or state-owned manufacturies, town guilds, and individual peasant and town weavers all produced textiles for the local populations. In the nineteenth century many weaving centers closed down due to increased prices of raw materials, but trained peasants and craftspeople opened workshops and used locally produced materials, including cotton. The technical skills learned in the weaving centers being applied to village production is “one explanation for the unusually sophisticated technique and ornamentation that is found in Ukrainian folk textiles” (Grabowicz and Shust , 9-10).

Girl at a loom 1913 p38

A weaver working at a treadle loom at home, 1913. From Invitation to a Wedding

Like weaving, embroidery also expanded from the home to a larger scale, with guilds forming as early as the seventeenth century. In the nineteenth century, almost every woman in Ukraine did embroidery, but it was also a specialized craft as some peasant women began to produce textiles for the town and city markets and families made their living on embroidery, outside of the guilds. As the shirts were always white linen (people wearing colored shirts would be considered foreigners), it was primarily the embroidery yarns that were dyed different colors. Traditionally, natural dyes were used to create tones that were both earthy and durable. Cochineal and sandalwood were used for red, walnut or sunflower seed husks and young leaves of black maple trees for black, onion skins and buckwheat husks for yellow, and apple and oak bark for orange. The homespun threads were soaked in dye for up to a week and then hung out to dry.

Ukrainian embroidery techniques are extremely advanced and varied, with more than one hundred different recorded stitches. The embroidery can be divided into four basic types: openwork embroidery, flat stitches, weaving stitches, and cross-stitch. All of these types are done in counted thread patterns, where the pattern follows the weave of the even plain weave ground fabric.

shirts 22,23,24 p99

Women’s shirts featuring openwork embroidery, 1920s. Ukrainian Museum, New York. From Invitation to a Wedding

Openwork embroidery creates open space in the fabric by either tightly sewing around areas without cutting thread, as in the eyelet stitch, ochka, or by cutting threads out of the fabric and embroidering around and over the open spaces, known as cut-thread work. Two types of Ukrainian cut-thread work are hem stitching, known as merezhka, and cutwork known as vyrizuvania. These techniques create lacy patterns that often have bars or embroidery with darning over the open spaces where thread was removed. Openwork embroidery is usually done with light colored threads on ground fabric of the same color.

Flat stitches are used to follow lines or fill in shapes and lie smoothly on the ground fabric. Nastyluvania, hlad, and yavorivka are three common styles of Ukrainian flat stitching. Nastyluvania is often used with openwork stitching in motifs of leaves, flowers, and stars. Hlad stitching is typically used as a fill-in stitch, and yavorivka is a very angular style of embroidery that is done in straight rows of pattern.

Weaving stitches are the most ancient of Ukrainian embroideries, and are so named because the needle imitates a shuttle. Both nyzynka (nyz) embroidery, worked in the direction of the warp, and perevolikania, worked in the direction of the weft, are embroidered from the underside of the fabric. The needle runs over and under one or more warps or wefts of the ground fabric, forming rows that create a geometric background pattern. Flat stitches or cross stitches are often applied on the right side of the fabric to fill in uncovered spaces.

Finally, in cross-stitch embroidery, each stitch is made up of two diagonal lines crossing each other, worked in blocks. This is now the most popular embroidery stitch in Ukraine, and is also the easiest to learn.

ukrainian shirt 55 cropped

A grapevine pattern worked in cross-stitch on the sleeve of a shirt. From Ukrainian Embroidery

Given the long and laborious process of production, textiles were of course extremely valuable for both peasants and landowners. Besides being economically valuable, textiles and in particular shirts also had great cultural and spiritual significance. The shirt was worn next to the body, so it was considered the double of the person wearing it. Some believed that character traits, physical conditions, and both good and bad attributes could be transferred from the wearer to the shirt and vice versa. For this reason, shirts were never loaned. Embroidered shirts made by mothers for their sons before they left to join the army also carried great significance. The shirt served as a remembrance for the boy of his mother back home, and if he died in battle, he would be buried in it.

Shirts and other textiles were also associated with rites of passage, particularly marriage. Every Ukrainian girl learned to embroider, weave, spin, and sew at a very young age, being skilled with a needle and thread as young as six years old. With the help of her mother, she would begin producing textiles for her trousseau, which would be the dowry for her future marriage. This included bolts of cloth, household linens, ritual cloths, and clothing including up to fifty embroidered shirts. Even the poorest peasant woman would have at least twenty shirts in her trousseau by the time of her marriage. The items of the dowry were often exhibited and inspected by guests at the wedding. The shirts played a role in the actual wedding rituals as well. At betrothal, gifts such as embroidered shirts or ritual cloths (rushnyky) were exchanged, and the night before the wedding, or “Maiden’s Eve,” the groom’s ushers would deliver gifts from the groom to the future bride, and she would send them back with gifts for her groom. This always included a shirt she had embroidered especially for him that he would wear for the wedding, like the one below. The woman would of course wear an embroidered shirt at the wedding as well, under several other garments and accessorized with a hair wreath.

 

The textiles associated with the Ukrainian folk wedding, which was more important than civil or religious wedding ceremonies, were used in rituals that ensured good fortune, fertility, and prosperity for the newlywed couple. The embroidery motifs and arrangement on the shirt were originally thought to have symbolic power related to these elements.The most common of these motifs is the ancient symbol of the fertility goddess, known in Ukraine as “Berehinia,” who is represented in various media from the Neolithic times through the present day.

She is represented in both realistic and abstract forms, usually with her arms raised up, and sometimes she is transformed into a “tree of life.” The goddess is also associated with flowers, even turning into an image of three flowers, and she is often accompanied by a small “daughter goddess,” symbolizing sexual fertility. In Ukraine, the goddess sometimes has bird claws, as birds live in the sky and are considered divine beings. Motifs of Berehinia were often repeated on the edges of shirts, especially for weddings. Examples of stylized tree of life motifs can be seen on the shirts below.

Other fertility designs used in embroidery include lozenges surrounded by rays and hooks, and lozenges divided into quadrants with a dot in the middle of each, known as the “fertile” or “sown field” motif.

lozenge motifs wwh dress p113

Lozenge fertility motifs from A Worldwide History of Dress

The grape vine motif also recurs in Ukrainian embroidery on shirts, and may be associated with fertility as well, related to the harvest and fertility of the earth.

DSCN3648

Woman’s shirt, Eastern Ukraine, 1900s. Ukrainian Museum, New York. This linen shirt has white-on-white openwork and satin stitch embroidery on the sleeves, insets, and hem of the skirt. A grapevine motif is featured on the main part of the sleeves.

While the fertility motifs occur in many reincarnations on Ukrainian shirts, especially for weddings, embroidery designs are otherwise extremely varied. Some motifs may have ancient roots and originally had symbolic meanings that have now been forgotten, while other motifs are purely decorative. There are regional differences in embroidery designs, and some generalizations can be made about design preference based on time period. For example, patterns were almost exclusively geometric between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, and geometricized plant motifs appeared in the seventeenth century as cross-stitch embroidery became popular. The color red was prominent, but other colors were used as well, and white-work was common for everyday wear. Younger girls tended to wear brighter colors and heavier cutwork designs, while older women wore more subdued designs and widows would no longer wear red. The placement of the designs, however, was consistent throughout Ukraine. Embroidered motifs were thought to protect the wearer from evil forces, so they were placed around any opening in the clothing where the forces might get in – the neckline, cuffs, bottom hem, front opening, and also the entire sleeves and especially upper arm, which was considered the source of strength. Women’s shirts often have more embroidery than men’s, as women are thought to require more protection as the creators of new life.

shirts 29,30,31 p102

Women’s shirts, 1900s. Ukrainian Museum, New York. From Invitation to a Wedding

Traditional embroidery techniques and motifs contribute to the uniquely Ukrainian identity that the shirts symbolize, which still lives on today, despite the fact that traditional peasant dress ceased to be used for everyday wear in most regions by the first quarter of the twentieth century. As industrialism made factory-made clothing and textiles more readily available and urban fashions influenced traditional styles, folk dress was replaced by modern clothing in all but the most remote regions of Ukraine. At the same time, the symbolic importance of folk costume started to be recognized and even glorified, first by the romantic movement of the turn of the twentieth century when peasant culture was thought of as “the carrier and embodiment of the true national ‘essence’” (Grabowicz and Shust, 15). For Ukrainian immigrants in Poland after World War II, the shirt and other textiles became important symbols of national identity, and were used for special occasions. During the Soviet period, the Ukrainian shirt was banned because it was a nationalist symbol, and a man could be sent to Siberia for wearing one. When Ukraine finally gained its independence in 1991, President Leonid Kravchuk and many others celebrated by wearing elaborately embroidered Ukrainian shirts under their suits.

leonid kravchuk 2

Leonid Kravchuck in an embroidered shirt on the day of Ukraine’s independence in 1991. From ukrafoto.com

In the 1960s, a renewed interest in ethnicity led to the revival of traditional Ukrainian textiles and costume, particularly in wedding ceremonies. In Ukraine and expatriate communities in other countries, the traditional folk costume has lived on in dance groups and theatrical performances, although many of these costumes are exaggerated and stylized versions of the original folk costume. While “folk dress” motifs and designs go in and out of style in mainstream fashion, the Ukrainian shirt still retains its cultural significance and status as a symbol of national identity. Young girls are often still taught to embroider, and many have at least one traditional Ukrainian shirt of their own.

Ukrainian girls in traditional blouses, ethnic dress, 63

Young Ukrainian girls in shirts with cross-stitch embroidery. From Ethnic Dress

Despite long periods of invasion and oppression, Ukraine has retained its individuality that manifests itself in traditional textile crafts. The Ukrainian shirt lives on today as a representation of nationalism that is also steeped in a long history of spirituality, cultural traditions and skilled handcraft.

_____

So thank you, Grandpa, for cultivating in me and so many others an interest in and respect for other languages and cultures. You were an inspiration to so many, and I love you. RIP.

Sources:

Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. The Worldwide History of Dress. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Dankowska, Joanna. Textiles and National Identity Among Ukrainians in Poland. Pittsburgh, Pa: Center for Russian & East European Studies, University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 1996.

Fox, Lilla Margaret. Folk Costume of Eastern Europe. Boston: Plays, Inc, 1977.

Gleba, Margarita, and Ulla Mannering. Textiles and Textile Production in Europe from Prehistory to AD 400. Oxford : Oxbow Books, 2012.

Grabowicz, Oksana I., and Mariia Shust. Traditional Designs in Ukrainian Textiles: An Exhibition. New York: Ukrainian Museum, 1977.

History of Ukrainian Costume: from the Scythian Period to the late 17th century. Melbourne: Bayda Books, 1986.

Kelly, Mary B. “Goddess Embroideries of Russia and the Ukraine.” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Autumn, 1983 – Winter, 1984), 10-13. Woman’s Art Inc. Accessed on April 30, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1357939

Kennett, Frances. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1995.

Kmit, Ann, Johanna Luciow, and Loretta Luciow. Ukrainian Embroidery. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, 1978.

Snowden, James. The Folk Dress of Europe. New York: Mayflower Books, 1979.

Wolynetz, Lubow, and Natalie O. Kononenko. Invitation to a wedding: Ukrainian wedding textiles and traditions. New York: Ukrainian Museum, 2010.

 

Costume Mounting on Nantucket

As I mentioned in my last post, this summer I was interning at the Nantucket Historical Association, and it was a really enriching experience. Friday was my last day, and while I was excited to come back to America (as Nantucketers joke sometimes) and go to Trader Joe’s, it was bittersweet because I absolutely loved the work I was doing and the people I worked with. I think now is a good time to look back at some of the projects I worked on this summer, and as promised, I’ll talk more about costume mounting!

Just before the 4th of July, I got the chance to mount some costumes for the new “Hollywood Meets History” display at the Whaling Museum, the NHA’s main site. We had some film costumes on loan from a major production company that are featured in an upcoming Nantucket-related film. The curator wanted to put these on display in conjunction with some historic pieces from the NHA’s collection, highlighting the women of Nantucket who were at home when the whalers were out at sea.

IMG_1538

Here’s the finished product – stay tuned to see how I did it!

Mounting a couple of costumes is usually pretty straightforward, if sometimes quite involved – you start with a mannequin, you pad it out, you add understructures and accessories, etc. We had a couple of challenges that made this a bit more complicated: no mannequins, and display cases that were not deep enough for a full form. The curator also wanted to portray that these were film costumes, and they were displayed alongside props, so we opted for an on-the-hanger look. These costumes would have looked really strange if they were literally just on a hanger in the display case, so I had to give them some body. This also gave me an excuse to take the ferry to Hyannis for the afternoon to get supplies – woo!

IMG_1437

Initial plan that changed a bit in the end

For both ensembles, I started with two layers of blue board cut out to be slightly smaller than the costume, and put a small strip of ethafoam in between to create some depth. I then attached these to a wide coat hanger (the widest I could find at Bed, Bath & Beyond!), and covered the whole thing with thick polyester batting.

IMG_1450 IMG_1451

I sewed on the batting, then covered it with black stretch fabric. Curved needles come in really handy for this kind of sewing!

IMG_1457 IMG_1454

Each ensemble got a different type of arm. The jacket didn’t really need much since it was structured and made of fairly stiff pigskin, so I just stuffed some pantyhose and stuck them in the sleeves to fill them out a little. The other ensemble had a shirt that was really torn up, the wearer having been shipwrecked, and the linen was pretty floppy and needed more substantial arms to actually look like a shirt. Luckily, there were some leftover foam “noodle” pool toys. After a little experimentation with a glue gun and a box cutter to create elbow bends and smooth shoulders and wrists, I ended up with some pretty nice arms. I covered them in black fabric, since they would be seen through the holes in the shirt.

IMG_1474IMG_1475

IMG_1479 IMG_1478

While the pantyhose arms (whose ends were cut off after that picture was taken) could be sewn directly onto the torso and just squished into the sleeves, the noodle arms required a slightly more complicated setup. I sewed one arm onto the torso, but the other arm had to be removable for dressing. To dress the mount, I first put the shirt onto the stable arm, then over the neck and torso, but if the other arm had been sewn on there would have been no way to get it into the sleeve. I created a ribbon strap with velcro to attach the arm to the torso, so I could put the arm up through the sleeve once the shirt was already on the mount. I made sure that the soft part of the velcro was on the torso since the scratchy hook side might snag the shirt.

IMG_1481 IMG_1482

The last part to figure out was the pants. There was a lot of brainstorming on how to use the pants, since the case was not tall enough to display the full ensemble with long pants. We thought about hanging them separately, at a different height, possibly folded like they would be in a closet… Ultimately we thought it looked best to display the pants as if they were being worn with the shirt, and solve the height problem simply by folding the pants up into themselves. The case had a solid base below the display area, so it would look like the pants were just standing up in the case and you couldn’t see the bottom – pretty sneaky!

I carved a block of ethafoam to fit the waist of the pants (which I eventually figured out were worn folded over at the waist, after reviewing some reference photos. Research and accuracy is important!), padded it and covered it with fabric. I then created suspenders that went around the bottom of the foam block so the pants contraption could be hung on the torso. It turned out that the pants didn’t really need anything inside other than the block of foam at the top, since the fabric was fairly thick and the legs were folded up inside. I just held them in place with some trusty little entomology pins (the next best secret mounting material after pantyhose!).

IMG_1486

IMG_1578

Not too shabby!

After several days of carving ethafoam and noodles and hand-sewing the mounts for our little seamen, I moved on to the historic objects, a shawl and a bonnet. The shawl was a gorgeous embroidered silk satin piece with fringe. It was in beautiful condition, especially given its 1837 date, but it was HUGE. Definitely too big to be draped over a padded tube without folding multiple times, and I didn’t want to fold it too much for conservation reasons, or have it hanging for too long as it may become distorted. I did a bit of research to find the most responsible way to mount it, asked a teacher for advice, took lots of measurements, and looked for examples of shawl displays. I eventually I decided that it would look most impressive and be most space-efficient to display the shawl on a dress form. While we had no mannequins, we did have dress forms! This also allowed me to only fold the shawl once, and I created a long tube of polyester batting wrapped in Tyvek to place in the fold to prevent hard creasing.

IMG_1524 IMG_1520

I used the noodle arm treatment again, this time covered with pantyhose so they were easier to sew onto the form, which was fabric-covered hard foam. I then draped a piece of barrier fabric in the shape of the shawl over the form.

IMG_1526IMG_1532

Then it was just a matter of draping the shawl nicely, sticking a couple of entomology pins on the front, and detangling the fringe. We covered the whole thing with a sheet to transport it to the museum – which involved me playing contortionist in the car while lovingly holding this little lady still.

image1-1image4

Finally, the bonnet. I knew I wanted to make a carved foam mount, padded and covered with fabric. I looked at a bonnet already on display to see how far forward the mount went inside the bonnet, and I made sure that the mount would fully support the structure of the bonnet, which was fairly fragile. I tested it several times for fit, and did some fancy fabric stretching and sewing to get it covered (not the most beautiful, but I placed the seams where they wouldn’t show).

IMG_1439 IMG_1557

IMG_1564 IMG_1566

The one tricky issue was what type of stand to put it on. We didn’t have any appropriate metal stands, or any like the one already on display, so I made one out of blue board.

IMG_1558 IMG_1561

I glued the stand to a flat square for stability and covered it with fabric. Finally, I rolled up the ribbons around loops of mylar – you can’t even tell that one ribbon is almost completely torn! Sneaky! To keep the ribbon loops in place, I put another piece of mylar through the loops and attached them to the display case so they wouldn’t unroll while on display.

IMG_1570IMG_1575

And that’s it! Four mounts, five days (or something like that), and lots of fun! I have to say, this project was one of my favorites of the summer, and I’m so thankful to the NHA staff for giving me the opportunity to do this. It was challenging and exciting and really satisfying, and I would love to be able to do more of this kind of work. I hope this post can help out other people at small museums and historical societies by giving them ideas for how to mount their own costumes and textiles. There is so much great stuff out there, but it does take a lot of time, thought, and careful handling to properly mount fragile textile objects in a safe way. I welcome any questions and/or advice! Does anyone have any tips, tricks, or cool costume mounting experiences to share?

I <3 Costume Mounting!

It has been some time since I last wrote, and I am excited to say that I have now completed my coursework for my master’s degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology! My time in New York is over, and I have moved on to another adventure on a new island, this time a bit farther out to sea – Nantucket! I am interning at the Nantucket Historical Association as the Curatorial Intern focusing on the costume and textiles collection, and it has been an incredible experience. I have been given the opportunity to really use the skills I gained in grad school, and I am cataloging garments, packing them in archival storage, organizing parts of the collection, and doing some research. One of my favorite things I learned in school that I also got the chance to do (in the real world!) is costume mounting.

Yay costume mounting!

Yay costume mounting!

At FIT, one of our classes was Costume Mounting Skills, taught by Ms. June Bové. June worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for many years, and mounted costumes for every show that the great Diana Vreeland, former editor of Vogue magazine, curated for the Costume Institute. Needless to say, June is an incredibly accomplished lady and it is a huge privilege to learn from her. She is also one of the most hilarious, kind, and patient people I have had the pleasure to meet. A real class act, and an expert in her field.

IMG_1246

June sawing PVC pipe like a badass

In June’s class, we worked in pairs to mount a historic costume on a mannequin, complete with head treatment and accessories. My partner was the fabulous Leia Lima Baum of wearwhenwhy.com, and we dressed an ensemble consisting of a bodice, a skirt, and an overskirt. Through researching several fashion periodicals and comparable ensembles in museum collections, we determined that the ensemble was from circa 1871. This helped us to figure out what types of understructure, hairstyle, accessories, and even shoes we wanted to use to give a correct presentation of how this dress would have been worn.

IMG_1015

The mounting process started with creating a skull cap to attach our head treatment to so that we wouldn’t have to attach the “hair” directly to the mannequin and damage it. This involved covering our “creature”‘s head with plastic wrap, covering that with buckram, and holding the buckram in place with rubber bands – the bands prevented the buckram from pulling away from the mannequin as it dried, so the skull cap would fit snugly. As June said, the creatures should die of strangulation, not asphyxiation (a room full of mannequins can make for some pretty morbid jokes – which is totally hilarious with June’s deadpan delivery).

The buckram hat just pops right off!

The buckram cap popped right off! Success!

To start building up the body, the secret tool was… nylons! Yes, pantyhose. Preferably white ones. We used a pair with the crotch cut out over the head, and another on the bottom. This created a nice tight body stocking into which we could add padding to get the shape we wanted. June had us buy an anatomy book to show us where the muscles and the fat deposits are in the body. It would look pretty strange to give a mannequin padding straight down the spine or a ring right around the hips. The goal was to shape these areas to look as natural as possible.

Fanny Sue is getting some abs and hips!

Fanny Sue is getting some abs and hips!

Twill tape ties underneath the nylons serve as a base to attach other understructures to, and we also attached fishing line to be used for securing props later. It’s good to have everything attached to the innermost layer for stabilization. Next, we started building up the undergarments – through referencing images, measurements, and trying the skirt on the mannequin several times, we were able to adjust the volume of the petticoats and the bum roll (because this style was working its way towards the bustle) to just where we wanted them.

IMG_1148

Fanny Sue, now with shoulder blades, gets a petticoat sewn onto her waistband.

I tried this bum roll on underneath my lab coat later, but it didn't look as good on me.

I tried this bum roll on underneath my lab coat later, but it didn’t look as good on me.

All of the understructures were made out of clean, archival materials (no use of historic undergarments!), and then a layer of muslin acted as a final barrier between the understructures and the historic dress.

Fanny sue seems pretty satisfied with her petticoat as she looks wistfully into the distance

Fanny sue seems pretty satisfied with her petticoat as she looks wistfully into the distance

While the skirt was the main area that needed volume to create this historic silhouette, we still needed to add a little bit of volume on the bodice so the mannequin didn’t look completely lifeless. A bit of pleated bridal tulle on the arms kept the sleeves from falling flat. We wanted to give Fanny Sue some movement, as if she has been scurrying around looking for her favorite book… Jane Eyre?… She may be shy and bookish, but we didn’t want her to look dead.

IMG_1166

Once the shape was perfected, we got to try on the ensemble and add the finishing touches. Our research showed that the neckline and cuffs would have been decorated with some ruffles, and Leia went through her awesome stash of historic costume sewing supplies and found the perfect lace and ribbon!

IMG_1301 IMG_1306

We also carved boots out of ethafoam and covered them with fabric. If you have feet with shoes, then you need legs to attach them to. Our mannequin didn’t come with legs, so we made some! This may seem strange since the legs were completely covered by the long skirt, but legs do make a difference. Having legs underneath prevents the skirt from sinking in unnaturally, and it keeps the shoes in the right place. If the mannequin is up high on a platform and people can see up under the skirt, we want them to see shoes and legs, not a strange floating skirt.

IMG_1900 IMG_1169

Leia attaching our buckram and batting-wrapped wire hanger legs.

Leia attaching our legs! (made of wire hangers wrapped with buckram, batting, and nylons)

Of course hair style and headwear are important to the accuracy of the total look, and we had a lot of options to choose from so it was fun to get creative. A lady would never go out without her hat, and I think Fanny Sue is a simple boater hat kind of girl.

Leia made a lovely hair braid and I tried my hand at (fake) millinery!

Leia made a lovely hair braid and I tried my hand at (fake) millinery!

Leia made a nice little book and arranged it in Fanny Sue’s hand so that it would cover up the missing button on the bodice (which was held closed with an entomology pin).

P1090110

After a lot of hand sewing, readjusting, and finessing, Fanny Sue finally got dressed! Our class had a photo shoot of all the dressed mannequins, and everyone’s looked great. It was cool to see a room full of men’s and women’s ensembles from different eras, complete with accessories and mannequins that each had their own personalities (and names, and hobbies, and interpersonal relationships… you get pretty close with these creatures after spending a whole semester with them. Pretty sure some of them are having cross-decade romances. George, I’m looking at you.)

Fanny Sue looks fabulous from all angles

Fanny Sue looks fabulous from all angles

Leia's ribbon matched perfectly!

Leia’s ribbon matched perfectly!

P1090159

It was really satisfying to see Fanny Sue finally up on that platform, and it was such a fun project. Leia and I made a great team, and I was even lucky enough to work with her again dressing mannequins for the Museum of the Moving Image. Thanks for being such a great partner, Leia! Here’s to more mannequin dressing in the future.

P1090141If you like reading about costume mounting, stay tuned for next time – I’ll write about the clothing and accessories I dressed in Nantucket, this time sans mannequin!

Historic Fashion at Drexel (or: Boxes and Boxes of Clothes!)

Over the past year and a half, instead of traveling around Europe like in 2011-2012, I have been splitting my time between New York and Philadelphia (with the occasional trip to Boston or Minnesota).  I got in to FIT in New York for grad school, and my boyfriend Igor was accepted to do a PhD in comparative literature at UPenn.  While it was a big adjustment to be in different cities, it has been a great excuse to get out of New York (a city that, while it has much to offer, is unfortunately not somewhere I feel at home), and get to know Philly.  It is such a wonderful city!  So much history and culture, some really beautiful neighborhoods, great museums, great food, and it’s also really laid back.  Everyone I have met there has been incredibly nice and welcoming (maybe that’s just how museum people in Philadelphia are?).  There is also a crêperie down the street from Igor’s apartment that is owned by a man from Brioude, a tiny town just a few train stops away from Le Puy where we lived in France.  Small world.

The skyline of Philadelphia

The skyline of Philadelphia

One of the best experiences I have had in Philadelphia was interning last summer at Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection.  I had the chance to help out for a few weeks this past month before classes start up again, and I was so happy to be there again!  It is such a privilege to work with such an incredible collection and a really fabulous staff.  There have been a lot of exciting changes for the collection in the past year, with a big donation, name change, planning for their first big exhibition, and lots of donations coming in, while still sorting through objects that were never moved into storage after the new space was built.  This last part is primarily what I was involved in.

Over the summer, another intern and I worked on developing a system to organize and inventory the “Dirty Room,” which is basically a room full (and I mean really full) of boxes of clothes, mostly from the second half of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth.  I’m talking giant, human body sized boxes; it can be quite the workout to move them!  The objects in this room never made it into the main storage space, and have been stored in less-than-desireable conditions for a while, so boxes need to be examined before brought into the main collection.  It is also kind of a mystery as to what is in there; no one has looked through these boxes for a long time.  Not all of the objects will be transferred over, so another part of our job was assessing which pieces were significant (and in good condition) and should be considered for transfer into the main collection, and maybe even used in the exhibition.  There were a few different numbering systems used to label the garments over the past several decades, so we also had to match up the different systems to be able to track down the original records.  Luckily, most objects are labeled with a number and the donor name.  This is pretty significant, as the donor names can often tell us if the garment belonged to someone important.  Drexel’s collection, and in particular things in the Dirty Room (because they were transferred from another collection, long story…) has a lot of objects that belonged to the Drexel family and other prominent Philadelphians (for anyone who goes to UPenn – does Van Pelt sound familiar?).

drexel3

Every once in a while we find something special and bring it into the collection. This wedding dress was recorded as a Worth design in the files, but it has no label inside. Isn’t she stunning?!

drexel4

I love dresses with dangly bits! and pearls!

Working in the Dirty Room is like a treasure hunt.  You never know what you will find next!  It turns out that it is probably 75% wedding dresses, which makes sense if you think about it.  Wedding dresses are the most common piece of clothing that people save for years, they don’t get worn out because they are usually only worn once (or sometimes by a few family members), and people value them so highly (especially on a sentimental level) that they want them preserved in collections.  I never thought I would be jaded by seeing so many nineteenth century wedding dresses.  It is exciting when we find a whole wedding ensemble, complete with accessories.  Sometimes there is even a photo of the bride wearing it, and if you’re lucky, the original record has correspondence from the donor about who wore it, what the wedding was like, etc.  One time there was a letter describing how the newlyweds drove off from the church in a carriage led by their prize-winning horses!  Then there was the one that said the dress was from her first marriage and it wasn’t a happy one… So many stories!

5578F

Wedding dress c.1881-1885, complete with shoes and fan, below!  There was also extra fabric and a pair of stockings.

55815579

The other really exciting thing to find in the dirty room are dressmaker’s labels.  Every once in a while, there is a New York or Paris label.  Often, they are from Philadelphia!  It is so cool that the collection really tells the history of a certain place and the people in it.  One of my personal favorite finds is this gorgeous formal day dress with the label “Darlington, Runk & Co, Philadelphia.”  Usually the maker is printed on the waist tape of the bodice, but this one had another label on the back, too!  It’s from 1870-75.

64_63_5d0764_63_5d0264_63_5d03

64_63_5label1Then of course there is just a lot of eye candy!  And apparently I have a thing for buttons.  I love the buttons!

This beauty was labeled 1830-40. It is printed cotton with velvet trim and buttons, and is all hand-sewn (pre-widespread use of sewing machines!) Most garments we saw were 1870s-1900s, so it was exciting to see something older!

This beauty was labeled 1830-40. It is printed cotton with velvet trim and buttons, and is all hand-sewn (pre-widespread use of sewing machines!) Most garments we saw were 1870s-1900s, so it was exciting to see something older!

detail of a wedding dress from 1903, label: Foley Philadelphia

detail of a wedding dress from 1903, label: Foley Philadelphia.  More dangly bits!

64_63_4F

This c.1870 showstopper is by L. Hentenaar, Paris. We found a few pieces by this maker, but it seems pretty obscure… more research to be done!

1920 Worth velvet evening coat with quilted lining and 2 FULL FOXES as the collar. The heads are on the back. There are feet in there, too.

1920s Worth velvet evening coat with quilted lining and 2 FULL FOXES as the collar. The heads are on the back. There are feet in there, too.

63_17_1d03 67_37_1d01 6054d01 5578d02

Buttons!

As classes at FIT are starting up again this week (after these couple of snow days – woo!) my time at Drexel has come to an end for now.  I hope to stay involved there and continue to help out with their fabulous collection!  I leave the Dirty Room tasks in the capable hands of Hannah, a student at Drexel who is doing her co-op at the collection.  May you find many treasures!