Inside the Collection

Men getting dressed: installing a fashion exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum

The four-week installation of the touring exhibition Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015 was one of the most complex that I have ever been involved in. At the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), we displayed over 130 ensembles and single garments, primarily from the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which was an edited version of the original exhibition first shown at LACMA in 2016.

The curators of the exhibition, Sharon Takeda, Kaye Spilker and Clarissa Esguerra, wanted to present as many full ensembles as possible, something they achieved by combining garments and accessories authentic to the style or period or by acquiring a contemporary designer’s complete runway look. The LACMA team made or commissioned reproduction components such as shirts, hats, collars, neck ties, stockings, and even wigs, which were customised for each outfit. Some of the ensembles comprised up to twelve parts. In total, over 400 museum objects (mostly clothes and accessories) were shipped to MAAS in addition to hundreds of reproduction pieces, along with 100 mannequins and numerous display forms.

LACMA sent a team of six colleagues to Sydney for the installation (two curators, a textile conservator, collection manager, costume and textiles installation specialist, and a curatorial fellow). They worked alongside a team of ten MAAS colleagues and external contractors with additional help brought in at different stages.

This blog captures some of the moments over the four-week installation period from the day when the crates were unpacked through to the opening night on 1 May. For further information on the exhibition themes and content, visit the exhibition in Sydney before 14 October 2018, read this blog by the LACMA curators and an article by Professor Peter McNeil from University of Technology, Sydney.

One team unpacked and condition reported objects while the second team unpacked and assembled mannequins. There were five types of mannequins: three for the 18th and 19th century body shapes and two for the 20th and 21st century garments. Each mannequin travelled with its underpinnings customised to their respective garments by Melinda Kerstein, Costume Installation Specialist (LACMA). Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Some objects, mostly jackets, are shown on ‘invisible’ polyester felt mounts shaped to each garment by Jessica Butler, Mount Maker (LACMA). Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Each ensemble or garment came with a checklist summarising its various parts and any reproduction components. The green silk jacket hanging at the front of the clothes rack belongs to a Macaroni ensemble suit, c 1770. The next two images show some of the accessories for this ensemble and how it looks on display. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
The components of each ensemble were sorted into trays along with any materials, such as acid-free polyester wadding and tulle for dressing. This tray holds a nosegay (flowers), lace ruffles, buckles and reproduction shoes for a Macaroni ensemble suit, c. 1770. Note the hole in one shoe to accommodate the fixture that secures the mannequin to the plinth. See the next image for the fully-dressed ensemble. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
The Macaroni Ensemble Suit, c 1770, on display at far right. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS
Accessories for four contemporary ensembles including (at the top) a leather mask by Thomasine Barnekow and hat by Stephen Jones for Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck’s ‘Lust Never Sleeps’ collection, Autumn-Winter 2012-13. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
LACMA conservator (left) and MAAS Assistant Conservator Megan Hall (right) examined each object to record any changes of condition that may have occurred during shipping. The same process happens when the exhibition closes just before the objects are packed. Some people ask if it is necessary to wear gloves when handling textiles. In many cases, it is permissible to use bare hands provided they are washed regularly and free of moisture. One advantage of not using gloves is the greater sensitivity that it allows. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
LACMA Curatorial Fellow, Christina Frank, dressing a pair of trousers by Bill Blass for Pincus Brothers Maxwell, 1967-68 on a padded table. Tulle is used under the trousers to help maintain the line of the trousers while on display. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Melinda Kerstein, Costume Installation Specialist (LACMA) connecting the right leg to an 18th century mannequin dressed with the breeches of a French three-piece suit, c.1765 made of silk faille and metallic thread. Note the custom-designed ‘dolly’ which enabled us to move the dressed mannequin on its temporary wooden base. Watch this video showing how an outfit was dressed from start to finish. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Bronwyn Dunn, Assistant Conservator, Alysha Buss, Assistant Curator and Sarah Heenan, Collections Officer (MAAS) putting the Army uniform ensemble, 1799-1800, in its designated position. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Bronwyn Dunn, Assistant Conservator and Sarah Heenan, Collections Officer (MAAS) covering a dressed mannequin which awaits its final touches. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Freelance 3-D exhibition designer, Alison Ross, handing a jacket on its ‘invisible’ form to Rachel Tu, Collections Manager (LACMA). Rachel is hanging these jackets on the adjustable metal stands which allow the curators to determine their final heights and positions on the plinth. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Kaye Spilker, Curator, Costume and Textiles (LACMA) and Roger Leong, Senior Curator (MAAS), deciding on the final positions, viewing angles and heights of a group of jackets. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS
After the curators confirmed the position and height of each jacket on its ‘invisible’ mount, Scott Winston, Assistant Registrar and Carey Ward, Registrar, fixed wooden boards to the ceiling from which the jackets were suspended with four lengths of steel wire. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Kaye Spilker, Curator, Costume and Textiles and Rachel Tu, Collections Manager (LACMA) watching as Scott Winston, Assistant Registrar (MAAS) fixes the position of a suspended patchwork dressing gown, c.1835. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS
A finished plinth combining ‘invisible’ forms with mannequin display. Note how discreet the four steel wires become at low light levels. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS
Megan Hall, Conservator (MAAS), Jessica McLean, Registrar (MAAS) and Melinda Kerstein, Costume Installation Specialist (LACMA) securing a half-dressed mannequin to the plinth. Melinda then finished the dressing by adding the At-home robe (Banyan), c.1880, Smoking cap, 1870s-80s, and slippers, c.1870. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS
Suzanne Chee, Conservator (MAAS), preparing the fittings for fixing the mannequins to the plinth. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS
Final touches included accessories such as hats, ties, bows, wigs and, occasionally, a moustache. Here, Sarah Heenan, Collections Officer and Bronwyn McKenzie, Registrar (MAAS), place the wig for this Smoking suit, 1870s. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS
Rachel Tu, Collections Manager (LACMA) placing the wig for Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s punk outfit, 1976-77. The wigs were made of tailor’s canvas by Deborah Ambrosino, a milliner who works in the film industry. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Melinda Kerstein, Costume Installation Specialist (LACMA) adding the silk plush Top hat, c.1815 to the dandy ensemble, 1820s. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Rachel Tu, Collections Manager (LACMA) tying the reproduction silk bows on the breeches of the Incroyable ensemble, 1790s. Rachel was responsible for attaching most of the special mounted accessories which were a combination of authentic period pieces (such as the lorgnette or eyeglasses and the ‘Hercules Club, walking stick in this ensemble) and reproductions. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
A well-dressed gentleman of the eighteenth century wore fine muslin or linen neckties. But very few have survived or are too fragile to use. Most of the neckties in this exhibition are modern reproductions. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Although these muslin cuffs are modern reproductions, they have been carefully hand-stitched as they would have been in the 18th century. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Kaye Spilker, Curator, Costume and Textiles (LACMA) carefully straightening the silk tassels of these Smoking caps, 1870s-80s. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Peter Hermon, Exhibition Lighting Technician (MAAS) spent days up a ladder to get the lighting angles and levels just right. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Gavin Lewis, Workshop Preparator (MAAS), fixing the coloured strips which signalled the five thematic groupings of the exhibition. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Garth Knight (freelance installer) installing photographs, posters and illustrations for a display of ‘The Male Image’, a pictorial complement within the Reigning Men exhibition using MAAS objects and several loans. Note the covered mannequins which have been dressed to an initial stage and waiting to be placed into position. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Vanessa Thorne, Assistant Curator (MAAS) installing objects in Australian Men’s Style which is a complementary display of menswear and accessories from the MAAS collection. This display is located near the entrance of the Reigning Men exhibition. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Teresa Werstak, Conservator, preparing to install a portrait miniature of Governor Lachlan Macquarie and a daguerreotype in a showcase for the Australian Men’s Style display. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Gosia Dudek, Conservator (MAAS) measuring the final position for the ‘unicorn’ walking stick, made by Robert Read, 1890-1938, part of the Australian Men’s Style display. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Gavin Lewis, Workshop Preparator, Gosia Dudek, Conservator and Rebecca Ellis, Assistant Conservator (MAAS), are preparing to attach the acrylic covers protecting objects on the wall such as Grace Lillian Lee’s Enlightenment, 2017, part of the Australian Men’s Style display. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS
Every major exhibition relies on sponsors and partners. Ours included NSW Government, Ferrari, IWC Schaffhausen, Etihad Airways and GQ Australia. That’s me in the middle flanked by some of our Reigning Men ambassadors: Justin O’Shea, Timothy Nicol-Ford, Kelvin Ho and William Smart, all standing in front of the Ferrari driven to the museum by Justin. Timothy and William feature in the exhibition in a short film of Australian men talking about their individual approaches to style along with Jake Gordon, Benji Hart and Roberto Malizia, Isaac Kisimba, and Jimmy Niggles Esq. Click on the links to watch excerpts from the film. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS
All that is left to see the finest of luxury 18th and 19th century men’s fashion shown with contemporary interpretations of men’s style, is a visit to the Powerhouse Museum (one of three MAAS sites) before 14 October 2018. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

Roger Leong, Senior Curator
May 2018

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