Teaching from the Collections: Part 1

Image result for bonnie cashin getty image
Bonnie Cashin in her studio (undated)


One of the things I love best about my job as curator and assistant professor in the Stephens College Costume Museum and School of Design, is the opportunity to teach from our amazing collections of more than 15,000 garments and accessories.  The title of this fall’s exhibition is even called Teaching from the Collections


Inspired by an especially fun and bright group of students in my spring 20th century fashion history course, I selected thirteen complete ensembles by three important 20th century fashion designers: Geoffrey Beene, Bonnie Cashin, and Claire McCardell.  I thought it would be an interesting challenge to teach visitors about the collections while also addressing the ways we use the collections to teach fashion courses at Stephens.  As we approach the official exhibition opening date of October 6th, I’ll be writing about the process and showcasing different aspects of exhibition development that visitors seldom get to see. 


In the early 1970s Philip Sills of Sills & Company and longtime collaborator with designer Bonnie Cashin (1908-2000), donated garments to museums across the US.  Stephens College was one of the lucky colleges invited to select some of Cashin’s designs, sketches, and patterns.  This was a remarkable opportunity for a women’s college where we take pride in celebrating women’s innovations and achievements.  More on Cashin when the exhibition opens but if you just can’t wait, you can learn about how she popularized layering on Wikipedia and can read about her pioneering contributions to Coach bags in a 5/10/2016 New York Times article.

1967 Sills circular
Sills and Company promotional materials for retailers featuring a Cashin sketch (from the Stephens College Costume Museum and Research Library; image: L. Hall-Araujo)

One of the ensembles chosen for the exhibition was a 1974 full-length wool jersey evening dress and matching 1973 mohair and suede trimmed evening coat.  Worn together, the look packs a punch from the vibrant, high quality, orange-dyed materials to the ensemble’s modern, casual elegance.  Cashin avoided any fussy trims and embellishments instead making a statement by playfully nodding to sportswear and elongating the wearer through color and line.  Truly a masterpiece.

1973 evening coat close-up
Close-up of soiling on the coat's hood (80-073, Gift of Philip Sills, Stephens College Costume Museum and Research Library; Image: L. Hall-Araujo)

Alas, the suede trim had accumulated dust and was a bit grimy when I inspected it last spring so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work getting the garments ready for the public.  My first step was to see if some of the dust could be vacuumed off.  Museums often have vacuums with suction control allowing conservators, collection managers, and curators to control how powerfully dust and debris are lifted away.  Typically, a barrier will be placed between the textile and the vacuum nozzle.  To clean the objects going on exhibit I cover the vacuum nozzle with a bit of pantyhose that I pull taut and tie with a piece of twill tape.  This prevents me from accidently vacuuming up an important loose piece (such as a bead). 


We don’t usually press the vacuum nozzle directly to the textile.  Instead we use soft bristle natural artist’s brushes to gently sweep dust off the textile towards the vacuum nozzle.  Sound like a slow process?  It is.  This is not a task for the impatient or the time-strapped.


I began by using a soft brush and vacuum to clean the mohair, jersey knit, and suede components.  This was very effective for the wool areas but didn’t work so well on the suede, which still looked soiled after the initial cleaning. 

Loose fibers collected from cleaning
Wool and suede fibers collected from cleaning process (Image: L. Hall-Araujo)

After consulting several sources, I decided to do a test clean in an area that wouldn’t be visible when the coat was on a mannequin.  Armed with a never-used toothbrush, a Staedtler plastic artist’s eraser, and the pantyhose covered vacuum cleaner, I set to work. 


I lightly brushed the suede both with and against its grain taking care not to scrub.  Afterwards, I went in with the eraser to gently lift away especially stubborn soiling.  CAUTION: I do not recommend this treatment for the inexperienced to attempt!  Such a cleaning process is irreversible because what I was essentially doing was removing a layer of the suede that cannot be replaced.  It would be very easy to erase the suede to the point of creating shiny, bald patches.  After discussing my proposed treatment with colleagues, we decided that a cautious cleaning would do more good than harm by allowing visitors to see the garment in a greater approximation of its original glory. 


To prevent the suede from getting soiled again, the dressed mannequin has been covered with muslin before the exhibition opening.  Other precautions include only handling the garment with gloves to prevent leaving natural skin oils on the surface.  Once oils are on the garment it’s easy for atmospheric dust and dirt to settle and get ground into the surface, which may be how the suede became soiled over the past 40 years. 

As with all of our pieces on exhibition, once the mannequins are undressed the objects will be vacuumed before getting returned to permanent storage.

Post-cleaning close-up
After a cleaning, she's ready for her close-up!  (Mohair evening coat 80-073 and evening dress 80-074, both Gifts of Philip Sills.  Image: L. Hall-Araujo)



Check back soon for more notes on the upcoming exhibition Teaching from the Collections (October 6-December 16, 2018) at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri.  The gallery is located on the mezzanine level of Lela Raney Wood Hall located at 6. N. College Avenue.  Free visitor parking is available in the lot north of the building and admission to exhibitions is always free.  Hours: Wednesday 12-1, Thursday 5:30-8:30pm, and Saturdays and Sundays 12-3pm.  Closed during Stephens College holidays.


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