19th Century

Exhibition Announcement: Tattered and Torn, On The Road To Deaccession

Remember the Mon. Vignon garland dress that everyone liked so much as a Rate the Dress?  Well, it turns out there is another Mon. Vignon dress on display this summer in ‘Tattered and Torn, On the Road to Deaccession” on display on Governor’s Island in New York, every Saturday and Sunday from now until September.

Wedding dress, French, 1872 – bengaline silk with waxed orange blossoms – from Mon. Vignon, 182 Rue de Rivoli, Paris, image courtesy of EHA

The display has been curated by Empire Historic Arts, and shows gowns that would never usually be seen in a museum display: gorgeous gowns that have been well used, and well worn, gowns that show both the exquisite workmanship that has been put into them, and the time since that work was done.

EHA aims to make their exhibitions as entertaining as they are education, and to present aspects of the museum experience that aren’t usually put on display.  As someone who worked in museums, and knows that every exhibition has a backstory that is is every bit as interesting as the one you see on the surface, I heartily approve.

Wedding dress, French, 1886 – silk, faux pearls & lace, image courtesy of EHA

In this vein, Tattered and Torn presents a tale that isn’t often told in museums.  The tale of garments that are in terrible condition.  Fabulous pieces that were just worn one too many times, or stored badly, and now show the marks of the wear and neglect.  Many museums would deaccession these items, or leave them forever in storage, accessible only to the determined costume historian.  With this exhibition the items come to life. It’s a fascinating, and fantastic, idea for an exhibition.  For me, as interesting and wonderful as a perfectly preserved gown is, the story behind a gown’s wear, and behind how museums choose, present, conserve and display gowns, is just as compelling.

We know words like bergere and bustle, cartridge pleats and corsages, but what about accretions and friable?  Have you thought about why the gorgeous wedding gown above is so threadbare in particular areas, but not in others?  And is the wedding gown really less beautiful, and interesting, and worthy of our attention, because it is threadbare?

Evening gown, 1865 – made in NewYork of French silk and Belgian lace, image courtesy of EHA

Oh, how I wish I could be in New York this summer!  The gowns look amazing, and (best of all) the curators have indicated that they would be willing to let very interested and enthusiastic costume aficionados inspect the garments up close, both outside and inside.


Definitely worth a visit if you can possibly make it!  And if you do, and especially if you are able to look at garments up close, and at their interiors, please, please, pretty please take lots and lots of photos and show them!

What: Tattered and Torn, On the Road to Deaccession

When: Sat & Sun, June -Sept 2012

Where: Governor’s Island, New York


  1. Lynne says

    If I win Lotto, I’ll buy you a ticket! I do agree – the tattered and worn are just as interesting as the perfect specimens. The fabrics and techniques and styles are just as interesting.

    The dresses are lovely!

  2. That’s such an interesting concept for an exhibition. Wear really does teach you more about a garment’s wearer and use … that said, I pity the mannequin dressers for this one. It’s always a bit rough getting dresses on forms, but at least when they’re in good shape you don’t worry quite as much about damaging them.

    • Daniel says

      Believe me… you genuinely DO worry, even when the dress appears to be in good shape…

    • We actually left the arms off one of the mannequins because they were simply too large for the garment… and yes, dressing them was a very delicate procedure, and yes, we did hear/feel that which we’d rather not happen but still, having these garments out where they can be seen and experienced is far better than just letting them rot to pieces in storage. Even if the small museum has the space to store them (expensive enough) they rarely have the controlled environments that might preserve them for a bit longer.

  3. Oh wow – what a cool idea for an exhibit (and how wonderful that they’re willing to let some people examine the garments up close)! If only I were going to be in NY this summer (but it’s a long way from TN and I have no other reason to go!)

  4. I do volunteer work for the now in storage Canadian Costume Museum (formerly the Dugald Costume Museum). I’ve dressed a few mannequins and some of the dresses have had huge stains and tears. Those almost make me weep. But, with a strategically placed shawl or angled mannequin and you can hide some of that while still allowing the viewer to imagine the impact the gown would have originally had.

    Dreamstress, may be you can answer me this. One gown I saw was almost shreaded at one shoulder. It looked like a tiger had swiped its claws down the front bodice piece from the shoulder. What would have caused that? My thinking is the dress was worn often but was brutally tight and the fibers gave way. The other theory was that, years later, it was found in an attic and it was forced onto a mannequin/or person that was to large and the fibers gave way. What do you think? It was made of silk by the way.

    • Elise says

      The Canadian Costume Museum? Do you do anything with the costumes from the Stratford Festival? Back when I used to live near there, they let all school groups rent costumes for 90% off! That meant that all school productions had the most fabulous costumes!

      But the cool thing about it (and why I wanted to post here), is that you weren’t allowed to wear deodorant or perfume in order to keep the integrity of the cloth. I really felt like you got an inside-peek at the actor’s process: the bright lights, the high emotions, and how dirt on the bottom could show a sweep of the train, or if a character had to fall to the ground. Way cool.

      • I don’t think so. But, I’m new to it and don’t know all the history of the collection yet. I kind of hoping these dresses weren’t falling to the ground!

        • Elise says

          Well, how should Ophelia react when Hamlet smacks her? How else do you get a reaction to read off of the stage if the character does not fall down?

          But these garments were meant for abuse (although still too beautiful for words), whereas the clothes here were to be worn in less…heightened…circumstances.

          I’d love to hear more about your experiences at the museum–I hope so much that you post your considered comments here! You must have wonderful technical skills! And do let me know if you deal with clothes-only, or stage and ceremonial clothes too!

    • See, I wouldn’t always want to hide the stains or tears – they are part of the gown’s story.

      About the torn bodice, did the tears look like the tears on the sleeve of the 1886 wedding dress? Or more ragged?

      The first is simply a factor of age and stress: the weaker warp or weft threads (depending on how the fabric was woven) give way at stress points over time, and the shoulder is a classic stress point, as it bears the weight of the garment during wear and (far more so) during storage, if the garment is stored on a hanger, or if it lies flat with a crease at the shoulder. The creases weaken and stress the threads.

      To ameliorate this type of stress, museums pad out their hangers to provide the largest area of support in the shoulder, and often sew extra loops of tape into the bodice and skirt waistband, to support the hanging garment at multiple points. When they store a garment lying flat, they pad out the bodice and sleeves, so there are no crease points with the weight of the front garment lying on top of the back of the garment.

      If the tears were more ragged, it indicates that the garment was made out of weighted silk – silk that had been treated with a metal (usually iron) to make it weigh more, as silk was sold by weight. The iron eats away at the silk over time, making it very brittle and friable (light has the same effect), so that it can rip in shreds at the slightest touch.

      While the rips can happen in response to one incident or strong wear (the two options you have posited), in my experience, and despite their dramatic appearance, they actually develop slowly over time.

      • They do look like the tears in the above dress only running top to bottom not side to side. Side to side tears make sense to me if the weight of the gown hanging is the issue. The the vertical rips not as much. It is good to know it was a factor of time and not necessarily rough treatment on someones part.

  5. I personally have a love affair with the tattered and torn, those with mends and tears, they tell me more, they are real to me – far more than the pristine, lovely and breathtaking as they are. Wish I was there!

  6. The Mad Purple Chicken says

    What a wonderful idea for an exhibition. I prefer looking at museum garments that are at least a little worn, it makes it easier to believe that they really are that old. Besides, when they have holes and are coming apart, you can see how they are put together.

    I don’t like the Idea of deaccession just because the garment is in bad condition, if it’s over a hundred years old what do they expect? There isn’t a never ending supply of antique clothing available. If I had a museum I would keep everything until it disintegrated.
    Anyways, they look more interesting that way, I usually don’t consider a consider a costume finished unless it has been distressed just a little.

    Another fantastic exhibition that’s too far away for most of us to visit, oh well, thank you for posting those lovely pictures.

    • flickr.comOften smaller museums don’t have much collection storage space. If they have a lot of good clothing and a lot of clothing in poor shape that can’t be displayed, with both all crammed in together, getting rid of the ones that will never help to bring visitors to the museum can give more space to the ones in decent condition – which will help them stay in good condition longer. (And you might be surprised at the good shape some well-made century-old garments can be in. I was looking at – okay, drooling over – a bright maroon silk day dress that honestly looks as though a costumer made it yesterday.)

      And deaccessioning doesn’t just mean throwing them out. They could be donated or sold to museums (or people) that have more space or that want deteriorated study pieces.

      • Absolutely. And with most museums deaccessioning is a very complicated process specifically designed to ensure that only pieces that do not add to the collection in any way are culled.

        • Dreamstress, you once did a description about how you decide to use an item in your sewing and it runs along the lines of how museums make their decisions. I think you were talking about how you chose to deal with leather gloves in your possession. In your post you wrote that you might choose to wear vintage gloves in a costume as there are lots of them and they serve as an educational tool…teaching others how it felt to wear or touch the hand of someone wearing gloves. If you had a pair that were particularly rare or unusual you would store them properly…even donate to a museum that might need that item. Ones that were damaged could be cut apart and used on stays. And ones in horrible shape might be used for patterns. Something like that. Museums only have so much room and money to properly store these things.

          • The Mad Purple Chicken says

            Oh, that’s a relief. I don’t know much about museums.

  7. Personally, I find damaged pieces can be even more interesting than pieces in good condition because a) the damage can be quite revealing about the way the piece was worn and how durable it was, and b) you can often see internal construction more easily on a damaged piece.

    I love that they’re doing this exhibition, and I really wish I could go to it. Why does NZ have to be so far away from everywhere?

    • I definitely agree. Though I’m glad we have both almost-pristine and damaged pieces!

      NZ is so far away from everything so that the best place in the world is safe if the rest of it implodes. The same holds true for Hawaii. That’s why it’s the most remote archipelago in the world. 😉

    • I’m sure we’d love to come to NZ (I’ve wanted to go for a long time) and bring the exhibit to you – with the funding to get us there it could all be happily arranged!!!

  8. That first picture to me looks rather ‘miss haversham’ like to me.

    • Funny you should observe that – we get that comment all the time… and I’d have to admit we played that element up since the space we were given for the exhibit is also in a state of disrepair. The island was neglected for many years after the military left and while they’re beginning to renovate there are many buildings where the paint is literally peeling and chipping off the walls… the space smells like you might expect it to as well.

  9. Thank you so much for your beautifully written post. We appreciate it very much. I also wanted to let interested parties know that if you go to vimeo.com and type ’empire historic arts’ in the search bar you’ll find 2 videos that show our show from last year on Governors Island (couture fashion – from Charles Worth to Balenciaga, Dior, Jacque Fath – dating from 1830 -1980) as well as another current exhibit at the Morris-Jumel Mansion (the oldest house on Manhattan, 8500 sq. ft. Palladian style mansion) where we populated the rooms with period costumes c. 1790’s to c. 1865 depending on the room. We’ll be posting a video of this exhibit as well once we raise the funds to do so. Thanks to all for your interest.

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