Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Boob Assessment Brigade

In a museum, if you do a good job of dressing a mannequin, everyone will focus on the clothes. But if you do a bad job, everyone will focus on how weird and lumpy the mannequins look. The fact is, when you are padding out a tiny dress form to look correct under a set of clothes, human anatomy becomes a giant, confusing mystery. You find yourself saying things like "can someone come in here and explain what crotches look like?" and "does this butt look sad to you?"

On Friday an intern and I were doing battle with a 1960s woman's suit, and we couldn't tell if the boobs actually looked weird or if we had just been staring at them too long. She would keep re-doing them and I kept asking for adjustments. I would put on my gloves, do a little groping and squeezing, and then point out places that needed more or less padding. Eventually I had to get some outside input. I went up to a group of my co-workers (including my two department superiors and a man from another department), and asked if they would help assess the boobs we were building. At first they laughed and were a bit hesitant but once they saw it they all agreed the mannequin looked weird and started giving suggestions on what shape, height, size, and distance apart would look best. They offered some good pointers, and we decided to pull out a bunch of stuffing and re-build. Eventually I was able call my critical boob assessment brigade back in and we got much more positive feedback.

Maybe I should just start a feature on this blog called "what do you think of these boobs?" where I post mannequin images and get feedback. I would probably get a lot more blog hits. I could have a related feature called "what is the deal with this crotch?" although that sounds more like a bizarre game show or an old joke from a Jerry Seinfeld routine.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vacuuming Roundup

So what have I been vacuuming recently?

  • Female clown costume from 1950s children's TV program (jacket and hat only- harem pants still in storage and not in need of cleaning)
  • WWII flight suit. Apparently fighter pilots had to have the courage of men and the bodies of boys. It seemed to be about the right size for an Olsen twin.
  • polar fleece. (Yes, the bust is a part of history now!)

I also recently took a hydroplane racing jumpsuit home to wash. The thing is 100% nylon and super durable, but a dry cleaner told us that the chemicals they use could destroy the elastic on the wrists and ankles. So without a basin large enough at work, I decided to wash it in my bathtub.

The act of immersing a museum object in water is always a little scary. No matter how recently made it is, what it is made of, or how many tests for colorfastness I've done, there is always that little fear that all the dyes will bleed out and the whole thing will just disintegrate in my hands. As irrational as that fear is, I still had to take a deep breath before dunking it under water. In this case, I could at least remind myself that hydroplane racing is a sport that happens on water, and that it would be pretty bad design to make the uniform water-soluble.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Welcome to the Blog!

Hello all, and welcome to my new blog! I’m glad you are here. As of now, I expect this blog to be mostly about my job and my work as a professional fashion history nerd, but it won’t be exclusively about that. If I do something of note outside of work or want to comment on Miss Universe national costumes, I will feel free to do so. Hopefully that is ok with you.

So, you might be thinking- what is the deal with vacuuming? Why does Clara do so much of it?

Well, basically museum artifacts periodically need to be cleaned. In the real world clothing gets thrown in the washer or sent to the dry cleaner, but both of those processes could cause serious harm to a historical object. When working with museum artifacts, you try not to do anything that can’t be reversed. Well, cleaning is not reversible. The benefits of a good cleaning can outweigh the drawbacks, but before you clean something you have to be really, really, sure that you are doing the right thing. So since full immersion in water could be risky, the safest and least-invasive cleaning technique is vacuuming.

The problem with vacuuming is that you have to do it with a special artifact-only vacuum, use a tiny attachment, and are supposed to pick up and put down the nozzle spot by spot (no dragging!). So vacuuming a T-shirt could easily take 1-2 hours. When I was in grad school, it was the tedium of a small vacuuming project that made me decide I could never be a conservator (I took the curatorial track in my program instead). But lo, here I am at my dream job in Seattle, vacuuming everything.

At first, I really hated it, and at one point nearly went insane while vacuuming a gigantic kimono. But now I find it sort of relaxing and meditative. I bring my iPod and all is good.

I also get a huge kick out of the things I vacuum. In school we studied 18th century silks and meticulously crafted Chanel suits. It makes sense that you would handle those things with white cotton gloves and clean with only the gentlest amount of suction. But now I work at a regional history museum with a quirky collection. I clean weird stuff.

This is my story.