Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  October 20, 2017

Untold Stories: Behind the Scenes as a Volunteer Curatorial Assistant at National Museums Scotland

Scott William Schiavone

In October 2016, I started as Volunteer Curatorial Assistant with the Art & Design Department at National Museums Scotland.  My role is to support the Fashion and Textiles Curatorial Team on projects to enhance the museums’ collections.  As my first project, I was assigned the task of taking an inventory of all the registered garments within the Jean Muir archive. Projects like this are extremely time consuming for curators so they are a perfect opportunity to enlist the help of volunteers, like myself.  This in turn gives me experience in object handling and working with museum collections for my own professional development.

Donated to the museum in 2005, as instructed by Jean Muir herself, the archive consists of approximately 18,000 objects, including garments, sketches, patterns and jewellery.  Jean Muir plays a pivotal role within the history of British fashion and therefore it is important that her extensive archive is made accessible to the public and to a new generation of fashion designers and academics.

Slowly but surely, the Assistant Curator and I started working through the registered garments in order to make an inventory. Throughout this process we were able to repack, move and hang objects so they were both stored more appropriately and more easily accessible.  Going through each box, we checked accession numbers, took record shots and double checked all the entries on ADLIB, the museum database system.

Personally, I have found working with this collection amazing!  Jean Muir continually surprises and inspires me with her attention to detail. Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Archive that Keeps on Giving’, throughout the project I came across some gems in jersey, lovelies in leather and wonders in wool!

Some of the most creative and interesting pieces came from the 1988 Australia Collection.  This collection was commissioned by the International Wool Secretariat and the Australian Wool Corporation to celebrate Australia’s Bicentenary. Alongside international designers such as Gianni Versace, Oscar de le Renta and Sonia Rykiel, Jean Muir proved there was no limit to her imagination, talent and understanding of colour, shape and form. Inspired by Australia’s Great Coral Reef, an ensemble from this collection is currently on display in the new Fashion and Style Galleries but you can also see a few pictures here of other pieces from the collection.

This process was a cathartic one as it gave us a sense of what had been accomplished and what was still to do.  The registered garments from the collection are now housed within the costume store at the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton.  This section of the archive and its registered garments are now in an ordered fashion and easy to navigate for access and enquiries.  It is now clear that our next priority is registering and repacking the remaining garments discovered during the inventory process.  The next stage will take place later this year.

My second assignment as Volunteer Curatorial Assistant was another inventory project, this time on the Charles Stewart collection.  Charles William Stewart (1915-2001) was more commonly known as an illustrator but contributed to one of the most significant dress collections in the UK. Stewart’s passion for historical dress started at a young age when he stumbled upon a china doll in a mock 18th century dress in a window on Princes Street, Edinburgh.  As an illustrator, to help with historic illustrations, Stewart collected numerous items from dealers on Portobello Road in London. Charles Stewart dressed mannequins in garments from his collection for his illustrations as this was a good way to ensure historic silhouettes, draperies and folds where accurate. What he accumulated was a diverse collection consisting of dresses, skirts, bodices, capes, hats and shoes and men’s suits from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, some from some of the most famous fashion houses in Europe.                                                                                                           

One of the first garments I discovered was this pretty but very delicate summer dress dating to c.1876. I was instantly drawn to this day dress as it is one of my favourite silhouettes in dress history.  The bodice is in the typical cuirass style of the late 1870s and the skirt has internal tapes to tie it back, creating the fishtail silhouette.

When I removed the garment from its protective Tyvek® bag to measure and take pictures for the inventory, attached to the bodice was the handwritten object label, written by Charles Stewart himself, giving a glimpse into the weird and wonderful life of the object before its accession into the museum. Stewart wrote these labels to keep track of his collections and often detailed the items provenance, the dealer he bought it from, date estimation and any other important or relevant information.

Label reads:

Given by Mrs Mary Baldwin, c1958. Rosie, the lay-figure, was wearing this dress when on 25th April 1971, she fell into the burn at Glenharvie. The dress was miraculously undamaged and, though rinsed twice and washed twice, re-tained most of its pale pink colour, the stiff dressing in the material and remained strong and untorn. But the dye from the ribbon had run so the whole dress was given to Mrs Finch to press and remove the dye stains. It was returned in its present condition in October, 1972.

These untold stories are what make working with such a fantastic collection an absolute joy.  From the transcript we learn that Charles Stewarts beloved mannequin Rosie was wearing this dress when on 25th April 1971 she fell into a burn.  Stewart acquired Rosie, a life size mannequin with articulated joints which enabled her to take almost any pose, in 1954. Stewart credits Rosie and her benevolent and commanding presence for making him take his collection more seriously.

When examining the garment you can see the effects of the aforementioned event. Stewart states that the dress was rinsed and washed twice (this was done before the garment was donated to the museum and became an object for nowadays, this is a process we would almost never do).  The dress was given to Mrs. Karen Finch, a famed and pioneering conservator of the time, for the removal of the dyes which had run from the pink ribbons. On very close inspection you can see that Mrs. Finch did a great job removing the dyes and fixing and darning parts of the bodice and skirt.  Stewart wrote on his label that the dress was returned in its present condition in October 1972, just 5 years before he donated his entire collection to National Museums Scotland.

Who can say if the discolouration of the dress was the result of Rosie falling into the burn or if it was perhaps a later consequence due to storage issues; before the collection entered the museum Stewart had his housekeeper launder and pack his collections in plastic bags, which we know now to be not the best solution for storing fashion and textiles.  After inspecting the garment I completed my inventory entry and hung the dress back in the store on its custom made padded hanger and Tyvek® bag. Through taking the inventory stories were revealed that would not normally be included within the galleries and displays of the museum, adding another dimension to the objects and offering an insight into the mind of the collector and his passion for the preservation of his collection.

Another aspect of this project I enjoyed was the retrospective documentation of the collection where I had the chance to carry out research and cross reference the original hand written rough registers by dress historians Naomi Tarrant and Janet Arnold.  This, coupled with Stewart’s original handwritten labels, gave the objects in the collections another level of interpretation to what is already a fascinating slice of fashion and textile history.

Objects from the Jean Muir and Charles Stewart collections can be seen on display in the new Fashion and Style gallery at National Museums Scotland whilst other pieces can be seen by appointment.

Guest CS blogger Scott William Schiavone offers a behind the scenes peek into the Jean Muir and Charles Stewart collections at National Museums Scotland.

  • Taking inventory of registered garments along with accession numbers at the museum’s collection centre in Granton.
  • A Selection of garments from the 1988 Australia Collection by Jean Muir.
  • The completed section of registered garments within the store at Granton.
  • Day dress in white cotton muslin with pink corded silk satin bows c,1876
  • Details from day dress c.1876 and Charles Stewart’s original handwritten object labels.
  • Inspecting the object for signs of the events that occurred on 25th April 1971.
  • Image of Rosie the Mannequin in historical dress © Charles Stewart.

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