Chemists and Couture Meet at the Met
Chemists and Couture Meet at the Met
What do fashion and science have in common? More than you might think—especially at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts Costume Institute.
In addition to being knowledgeable about design, conservators and curators must know about the chemical makeup of all kinds of materials in order to properly identify, store, and repair the 30,000 items (and you thought you needed more closet space!) in the Costume Institute’s permanent collection.
Behind the opulent, twice-annual exhibitions museum visitors see in the institute’s 5,000 square feet of gallery space is “a balance between science and aesthetics,” said head curator Harold Koda, who, along with conservator Chris Paulocik, took Museums on a behind-the-scenes tour of the state-of-theart conservation lab.
Paulocik was scrutinizing Philip Treacys Chinese Garden hat, created for Alexander McQueens spring/summer 2005 collection, when we arrived. The hat, a grove of miniature bonsai trees that appear to sprout from the wearer’s head, had certainly seen better days. Made of fragile cork, it had arrived at the Costume Institute in several pieces. But Paulocik said that while puzzle-piecing the hat back together might take several months, when that task is completed all you would need is a little fish glue (an adhesive made from fish parts) to make it as good as new. And then it could be taken apart again later, if necessary. “Conservators are always looking for treatments that are reversible, so if something better comes along, we’ll be able to use that,” she explained.
The most difficult items to conserve, surprisingly, are not the institute’s oldest articles of clothing—which date back to the 16th century—but boots and dresses from the 1960s, both Paulocik and Koda said. Polyurethane, a material commonly used during that era, not only deteriorates over time, but also emits gases in the process that can damage costumes stored nearby (Paulocik opened a box to show us an unidentifiable piece of rubber clothing that had “melted” in storage).
The collection also contains pieces colored with dye that is so chemically unstable it fades to nothing as years go by. As an example, Paulocik told us about the Duchess of Windsor’s wedding dress from 1937, a once-vibrant blue Mainbocher design that has aged to a dull gray.
Feathers, Fibers, Photos
“It’s really surprising, the diversity of materials we deal with,” Paulocik said. “I have porcupine quills, cigarettes, barbed wire, latex—I’ve got it all.” Given the variety of materials in the collection, conservation decisions are typically made on a case-by-case basis.
To understand proper storage and treatment of the institute’s newest acquisitions, the conservators are in constant dialogue with designers like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. And the curators try to avoid acquiring items they foresee deteriorating beyond repair in years to come.
For older works, researchers at the institute employ science in another way Paulocik finds exciting: by using forensics tests that identify dyes and fibers to determine an item’s provenance.
And if all that weren’t enough to keep the conservators and curators busy, they’re also in the middle of an estimated ten-year project to photograph and catalog each and every item in the permanent collection, which the Museum of Costume Art began acquiring in 1937, before merging with the Met in 1947. Because much of the clothing is fragile, most of the pieces have never been exhibited in the museum, and many of them have never been properly documented, Koda said. “Documentation has evolved very quickly, but we just haven’t caught up,” he added.
Cataloging the objects is important not only for future exhibitions, but also because part of the institute’s mission is to teach. Designers, design students, and researchers are invited to study fashion and conservation by appointment alongside museum staff.
From French Pinked Silk to Mohawk Hats and Cigarettes
Of course, it’s not all work for Costume Institute conservators and curators. They get to have a little fun too, especially by ogling some of the out-of-this-world costumes acquired for the permanent collection.
Koda said his favorite piece is an extremely rare, tiny bodice from 1616 that is embroidered with pea pods, gold scrollwork, and insects devouring one another. Paulocik loves a French pinked-silk doublet from the 1620s, one of only two known examples of its kind.
As for our favorites, we’d love to try on the remote-controlled robotic dress, the rubber sheath with wobbly black spikes, the corset that looks like a motorcycle’s handlebars, or the punk-inspired mohawk hat made of real cigarettes.
“This is why I love conservation,” Paulocik said as we admired the collection. “You can read about it, but when you see examples like this, that’s when it’s really exciting and it really hits home.”
"Chemists and Couture Meet at the Met" comes to ARTINFO from the fall 2007 issue of Museums magazine.