Behind the Scenes at The Costume Institute Conservation Lab

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Explore in 360° video where the Costume Institute's collection is conserved.

Behind the Scenes at The Costume Institute's Conservation Lab
The Costume Institute's conservation laboratory is a state-of-the-art facility that includes dye and analytical capabilities. The Costume Institute's conservation team is responsible for the preservation and conservation treatment of all fashion and costume artifacts in the department, a collection that numbers nearly 36,000 objects. In the following 360° video, have a virtual look around the lab. Conservators and a curator will offer you a closer look at five objects and tell you about their innovative conservation treatments: an 18th-c French court suit, an 1880s American dress, an 1898 Jean-Philippe Worth gown, and two dresses by Iris van Herpen from her fall/winter 2013-14 collection. 

Court suit, 1780s, French

This is a man’s suit from the 18th century that would have been worn to court in the final days of the French monarchy. This is the white tie of its time period. The silk velvet is woven with stripes, so you see this pink ground fabric behind. My job is to make it strong enough that it can be exhibited. The lining gets a lot of wear and tear as it goes on and off of mannequins, and so I’m using new fabrics and new stitches to make it structurally stable and strong. Then there’s an overlay of sheer fabric that will protect the original material from an abrasion, and future researchers can still see that original material even through the conservation work. On the waistcoat the fabric around the buttons split so I sewed them closed. A lot of the needles that I used are curved needles designed for eye surgeons. The tailor and the embroiderer used fabric, needles, and threads. I’m using the same three materials. So I see myself as the continuation of the work that went into the suit, and I’m just helping it travel into the future.

Dress, 1884–86, American

This is an American dress from about 1885. It wasn’t as formal as an evening dress, a ball gown. Like many of our eighteenth-century garments, it’s stored flat in our collection, so we don’t get a clear sense of the silhouette, but the skirt would have been worn over a bustle. At this date the bustle is at its greatest expanse; it’s almost perpendicular to the body. In addition, there’s a little silk pillow that’s filled with down stitched into the skirt and this would have given it just a bit of added volume. The bodice would have been worn over a corset, but for a really perfect fit the bodice is also boned. There is the name and address of the New York dressmaker, Antoinette Crapanche. It is in the late nineteenth century that we really start to see designers claiming their work. This would have had such an extraordinary impact when a woman walked into a room. It’s really sculptural in its effect.

Ball gown, 1898
Jean-Philippe Worth (1856–1926) for the House of Worth

In conservation we usually avoid doing restorative treatments, but if there’s something on the garment that misrepresents the way that it was intended to look, we will correct that if we can. That was the situation with this ball gown from 1898. It was made by the House of Worth, one of the top Parisian couture houses in the second half of the nineteenth century. We have a silk brocade; we have the butterflies in a triangular design so that they fit the panels of the skirt. There are seams that run up the center-front and the sides covered with this ribbon design. Much of the applique had been lost. This was very distracting, so we added a silk fabric to fill in the losses dyed to harmonize with the dress. The silk tulle undersleeves had already been lost and restored, so we replaced it with new netting. The result was very gratifying. We want the public to see the garment as a cohesive whole, rather than a damaged object.

"Bird," fall/winter 2013-14
Iris Van Herpen (1984)

As a conservator the reason I love plastics is they’re kind of a ticking time bomb. We’re not quite sure how they’re going to age and they’re very challenging to preserve. We love to collect Iris Van Herpen’s work. She is one of the most innovative designers working today. For this dress, called Moon, Iris Van Herpen took a polyurethane rubber and mixed metal filings in it. She then poured it over a cotton dress, took magnets, pulsed it on top and bottom to create the craggy moonscape that you see. It’s actually quite soft and supple. From a preventive conservation perspective, we’re concerned that it will start to harden and degrade. We would like to store it without oxygen and in the dark. This dress is called "Bird." On top it has actual bird skulls with pearls and glass eyes attached and then dipped in silicone. These dresses are made from completely unorthodox materials, so we understand that we might not be able to make them last. However, we collected these pieces directly from the runway to safeguard them and try to prolong their life.

Thank you for visiting The Costume Institute's Conservation Lab at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a pleasure to give you a behind-the-scenes look into what we do here in the lab.

Learn more about The Costume Institute's Conservation Lab on The Met website

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Credits: Story

Production credits

The Costume Institute staff featured in the 360° video:

Laura Mina, Associate Conservator
Jessica Regan, Assistant Curator
Glenn Petersen, Conservator
Sarah Scaturro, Conservator

Video Interviews by Metropolitan Museum of Art crew:

Director Kate Farrell
Producer Sarah Cowan
Editor Sarah Cowan
Cameras Kelly Richardson, Stephanie Wuertz
Lighting: Dia Felix
Production Assistant Skyla Choi
Original Music Austin Fisher

360 experience:

AKQA Paris

Creative Director – Nicolai Smith
Production Director – Quentin Bernard
Account Director – Antoine Daudier
Project manager – Antonin Cuny
Motion Designers – Hugo Thomas
Designer – Yann Moszynski

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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