Inside the Collection

Design underground #1 – In the fashion vault

Design Underground tour group viewing objects from the collection
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

Yesterday afternoon we kicked off the Design Underground tours as part of Sydney Design 2010 with an insightful, behind-the-scenes look at the expansive storage facilities of the Museum’s costume and accessories collection. Led by Suzanne Chee, the tour started with an overview of conservation work at the Museum and the breadth of the fashion collection. The first garment the group encountered was a crocheted dress designed by Romance Was Born and worn by Cate Blanchett at Federation Square, Melbourne in September 2009 (see image below). Dubbed by some as the ‘old-school granny rug’, the dress certainly turned a few heads among the group!

Crocheted dress designed by Romance Was Born
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

But, in order for garments like this to be kept in good condition, you need to ensure the correct climatic and humidity conditions and appropriate storage measures. Compared with the display of objects in exhibitions where the temperature is maintained at around 20 – 22 degrees, the long term storage of textiles requires a slightly cooler and constant temperature of 18 degrees (with a 50% relative humidity). When the store was setup in the 1980s, it was modelled on the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and The Kyoto Costume Institute (which have lots of hanging space). But, overtime, the Museum has increasingly opted to lay garments flat as this reduces the pressure placed on the shoulders and the seams created by hanging. This is moreso the case for the ‘heavier’ garments of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Suzanne Chee in conversation with visitors
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

Textile lengths, rugs and yardage are stored on aluminiuim rolls protected and covered with acid free tissue paper which can be easily moved about for study and display. Accessories, such as shoes, bags and gloves, are displayed flat in trays and filled with padding to help retain the object’s form.

Suzanne Chee in conversation with visitors
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

In the above image Suzanne shows the group how hats are stored and cared for. This is a Rugby League cap dating to 1914. It is placed on a wooden hat stand with a padded support shaped exactly to the size of the cap (if it was going to be displayed, it would be on an acrylic stand instead as it is slightly more pleasing to the eye!). The hats, as with a large part of the dress collection, are stored in compactus units, as you can see below.

Basement tour in progress
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

Following the tour, Suzanne showed the group how to make their own padded coathangers (of Museum standard!) to display their own precious garments over light refreshments. Everyone was particularly impressed by Suzanne’s ‘textiles-inspired’ cupcakes which were devoured in no time!

Suzanne Chee in conversation with visitors
Photography by Sotha Bourn © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

If you’d like to take part in any other upcoming Design Underground tours, please click here or download the Sydney Design iPhone app here. The next tour we’ll be blogging about is ‘Telling Stories About Textiles’ with Principal Curator, Design and Society, Christina Sumner.

Suzanne Chee, Conservator and Melanie Pitkin, Curator

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