Back in Style: Behind the Scenes in the Textile Lab

By | August 7, 2017

Inside the conservation department at the Saint Louis Art Museum, Zoe Perkins, Textile Conservator, can be found preserving, cleaning, and restoring a diverse array of artworks, from oriental rugs to Lakota cradleboards to, recently, a 250-year-old dress that has been in SLAM’s collection for almost seventy years. Given to the Museum by Mathilde ‘Quappi’ Beckmann, the wife of artist Max Beckmann, the rosy-mauve dress, dotted with flowers, has never before been exhibited to the public.

Now, the dress is one of several works that are on view for the first time in Cross-Pollination: Flowers in 18th-Century European Porcelain and Textiles. The exhibition explores 18th century Europe’s all-consuming fascination with the natural environment and an enthusiasm for botany that spread like wildfire from the scientific community into the worlds of art, fashion, and commerce.

Before the dress could be displayed in Gallery 100, it was brought to the textile lab for restoration which included the digital reprinting an 18th-century design to restore the sleeves. Follow the fascinating process of preparing the dress for exhibition in the slideshow below and see the final product on display when you visit Cross-Pollination, on view through November 26.

  • The sack (or sacque) dress, a mainstay of mid-18th-century fashion, is characterized by the two box pleats that fall from the shoulders to the hem. Though some alterations had been made to the dress over its long life, the box pleats were left intact.
  • The sleeves of the dress had been altered at some point to adapt to changing fashions. The primary goal for Zoe Perkins, Textile Conservator, was to restore the sleeves to match mid-18th century styles.
  • Zoe looked to the past to draft the design for the sleeve, using a historical costume pattern book.
  • However, she relied on a 20th-century technology, digital printing, to re-create the fabric of the dress.
  • The new fabric was printed to precisely match the color and pattern of the 18th-century fabric and was used to create the sleeves Zoe had drafted.
  • Delicate work takes many hands. Preparing the dress for exhibition also meant constructing a custom underskirt with the help of several volunteers.
  • The voluminous silhouette required nearly 46 feet of fabric and would have taken up a week and half to weave. The style of the dress was a boon to textile manufacturers and a symbol of aristocratic ostentation.
  • See the restored dress now on view in Cross-Pollination: Flowers in 18th-Century European Porcelain and Textiles through November 26, 2017.