The ‘Tinkerbell’ Dress and Exhibiting the Unexhibitable

Since starting this project, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about dirt and decay. Most specifically the importance of dirt in creating a ‘biography’ for museum garments and the curatorial and conservational challenges it poses.

Here’s the deal: when the Hodson Shop Collection was first discovered, it was dirty. Years of accumulated Black Country grime had taken its toll and left garments smeared with sooty smudges. Yet the decision was made to preserve this grime where possible as it was considered an important part of the collection’s story.

In the absence of a conventional ‘story’, i.e. one that involves someone actually wearing the garments and leaving traces and imprints of wear (this could be a scent, creases or marks), such a decision makes sense. Fashion historians and costume conservators often talk of ‘sacred dirt’ – a lipstick trace here, a spot of blood there. These are marks that are integral to the story of the garment and must be kept intact.

There are some quite touching and intriguing examples of ‘sacred’ dirt within the Hodson Shop Collection. My personal favourite is the 1930s vest that features two small cat paw prints. I love the idea of a cat crawling over the piles of unsold underwear before snuggling down to sleep on a pile of knickers!

So, yes, I find dirt very interesting!  But do museum audiences share my interest or do dirt and decay present insurmountable barriers for museum visitors? How can dirt and decay be presented to museum visitors? And at what point does a dirty and decayed item become unexhibitable?

The 'Tinkerbell' dress

The ‘Tinkerbell’ dress

This brings me on to what I have decided to call the ‘Tinkerbell’ dress (pictured above). The name comes from the fact that it is A) green and B) falling into a state of fairy-like shredded decay. It is an item that inhabits a state of limbo, being at once inside a museum but not part of the museum’s collection.

It is a beautiful pale green silk-chiffon dress from the 1920s that was found amongst the Hodson Shop stock. It has long lace-trimmed sleeves, a high lace collar and pretty scalloped pockets made from tiers of lace. I’m was initially quite surprised that the dress was from The Hodson Shop, mainly because it is silk, very bright and involves intricate detailing – such as the clusters of tiny silk wrapped balls that sit on the lace pockets. Most of the early Hodson Shop dresses are cotton or man-made fibres, fairly drab and simple. Sheila Shreeve believes that the dress may have been bought in especially for a friend or family member, thus explaining these differences.

The pocket detailing - note the cluster of small silk-wrapped balls.

The pocket detailing – note the cluster of small silk-wrapped balls.

The dress was discovered in such poor condition that it was decided not to accession it into the Hodson Shop Collection.  The silk is shattered and shredding – so much so that I was terrified to move the dress to take a picture (hence the far from ideal images above – I’ll attempt to get a better one when I am next at the museum). Whilst this decay is sad, the dress is beautiful.

During her inaugural lecture at London College of Fashion, Amy de la Haye talked about exhibiting fragmentary and shattered garments, in relation to the Fashion and Fancy Dress exhibition of the Messel Family dress collection at Brighton Museum in 2005. According to de la Haye, fabric’s natural ability to ‘disintegrate with the progress of time’ reflects our own human fragility. She gave a wonderful quote from Anne Messel: ‘Their frailty is their magic, don’t you think?’

It was this thinking that lead to the inclusion of a shattered and fragmentary dress in the exhibition. It was laid flat – with its damage and decay exposed to visitors. It was ‘the unexhibitable exhibited’.

Interestingly, an image of a shattered corset worn by Maud Messel was used as the invite for de la Haye’s lecture (see below), suggesting that decayed garments can often make a lasting impression upon on those who come into contact with them.

The invite to Amy de la Haye's Professorial lecture at London College of Fashion

Detail of the invite to Amy de la Haye’s professorial lecture at London College of Fashion

Unlike the shattered Messel dress, the Tinkerbell dress has not been worn and it is not attached to an illustrious family of aristocratic fashion collectors. Maybe it is wear and attachment to a personality that make signs of decay palatable to museum visitors – are they what enable the unexhibitable to be exhibited?

Whilst the Tinkerbell dress is unlikely to ever be exhibited or accessioned, it has provided me with a lot to think about. I feel very lucky to have experienced this dress in all of its magic frailty.

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