The Secret Life of Textiles

13 September 2017
I recently made a visit to New York and met up with my friend, Leanne, who was working at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as Research Fellow, The Costume Institute. 
As I knew when I got back from my holiday I was starting my post as Engagement Officer at MoDiP, I was enthusiastic about the opportunity to look around an exhibition she co-curated. It is entitled: The Secret Life of Textiles: Synthetic Materials which is the final exhibition in a series on textiles as seen through the conservator’s eye. On display were objects from the Costume Institute Collection.There were a few things which I found fascinating, which I will share with you in this post.

First, you might be surprised to find out what synthetic materials might be used for, in relation to fashion. It can be found used in various types of apparel from underwear to a dress, stockings or shoes and even your favourite summer blouse hanging in your wardrobe and much more!

Costume Institute Collection. 
Brassier, 1950s, synthetic, designer: F.B.R, Dress, 1968, cellulose acetate, styrene-butadiene copolymer, silk, cotton designer: André Courrèges,
Shoes, 1965, leather, polyvinylchloride and polyurethane, designer: Katharina Denzinger,
Stocking, mid to late 1960s, nylon.

The Twentieth century witnessed the unprecedented development and use of synthetic materials in many aspects of daily life, especially fashion.

It is intriguing that synthetic materials have been around and in use for over a century, yet museum conservators are only now considering their complex preservation challenges.

Some people might say that an outfit isn’t complete without any accessory. Designer Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973) would often like to have an off-beat accessory with a couture garment, creating a humorous irony which Schiaparelli enjoyed incorporating into her work.

Below is a photograph of two evening belts designed by Elsa Schiaparelli ca. 1938. The belts are both made of cellulose acetate with bubbled plastic, studded with painted stars and metal. One has pink painted stars and the other has gold.

Belts, ca.1938, cellulose acetate, designer: Elsa Schiaparelli, Costume Institute Collection.
The exhibition explored the topic of Residual Strain in relation to apparel made from synthetic materials. It explained how manufactures use linear polarized light filters as a quality-control mechanism to examine residual strain, or the imperfections in clear plastics that result in material weakness. Conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art utilized this same analytical imaging technique.

Residual strain, belts, ca.1938, Cellulose acetate, designer: Elsa Schiaparelli, Costume Institute Collection. 
In the photograph above the pink evening belt, at the top, reflects light – revealing strong colours where it is beginning to degrade. It means that the cellulose acetate has significantly deteriorated and the belt has signs of shrinkage, embrittlement, cracking and yellowing. In contrast, the gold belt in the bottom of the photography remains in good condition as it appears clear with little transmission of colour.
This exhibition will finish at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on 25th September and if you don't fancy a visit to the big apple, fear not. I was intrigued to see if here at MoDiP we have any similar objects in the collection. So I did some research and this is what I found: a brassier, a shoedress and Berkshire stockings, but obviously we have lots more apparel in the collection.  

We had an exhibition here at MoDiP back in 2015 - Threads: plastics wearing well, which looked at some of the uses of semi-synthetic and synthetic fibres over the last century, in everyday and specialist clothes. Subjects included rainwear, changing silhouette, and technical fabric.

If you want to explore the collection more - why not come and visit us when we reopen in our new location soon, within the Library at Arts University Bournemouth. For MoDiP updates follow us on twitter.

Sarah Jane Stevens AMA (Museum Engagement Officer)