A return to Renaissance

On March 30, 2012

  • Dress and mannequin maker Astrida Schaeffer is in the process of designing materials for an exhibit on Victorian dresses that will open in Dimond Library in September. Courtesy

A homemade dress from 1890s New Hampshire is standing in storage. It is made of faille fabric - a woven, ribbed cloth. The maker used a machine with chain stitching - new technology for the time - to hold it together. If one string is pulled, the entire piece comes apart. Standing next to it is a dress from 1890s Paris made of wool and silk with intricate rose details on the skirt.

Both historic dresses are being worn by mannequins made specifically for them by Astrida Schaeffer, a dress and mannequin maker who has spent decades exploring history through clothing.

 "Everyone wears clothes, and we kind of inherently understand what clothes are for, and to see something that walked around on someone else 200 years ago is an intuitive way to get that person on some level," Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer is currently working on 24 mannequins for a show opening in September called "Embellishments: Victorian Detail," which will be in the University of New Hampshire Museum on the first floor of Dimond Library. She is writing a book for the same show with 10 of her mannequins in it.

Schaeffer found her passion for historic clothing while taking part in Renaissance reenactments about 30 years ago. During that time, there were very few sources to find these clothes other than learning how to sew.

As she researched, Schaeffer found British costume historian Janet Arnold, an author of many books that look at clothing after the Renaissance. Arnold made her way to the United States for a speaking tour, where Schaeffer went to hear her and was inspired to expand her work.

"I'm sitting there in this room full of other people who were just as in love with this weird thing as I was. It dawned on me that this was something I could actually do," Schaeffer said.

Among those people were representatives from Plimoth Plantation, who were looking for volunteers to work on their clothes. Schaeffer accepted and stayed in the position for a year.

She soon looked for how she could expand more on her craft and decided to go back to school for a master's degree in history from UNH, focusing on "history as told by objects," as Schaeffer put it.

During her studies, she went to different museums to look at actual clothing versus the photographs she was used to looking at, leading to more volunteer positions, including Strawbery Banke, which turned her focus toward late 18th and 19th century clothing.

 "No one makes mannequins like Astrida," Elizabeth Farish, chief curator at Strawbery Banke, said. "She understands the form that the garment is trying to achieve."

Schaeffer was also involved with the UNH Museum, where Dale Valena - then the curator - asked her to guest-curate "Tailored to Teach," a textile collection that stayed in the museum for almost 10 months in 2000.

"She does beautiful work," Valena said about Schaeffer. "They [the clothes] hang the way they were supposed to have been made."

The class led Schaeffer to learn how to make mannequins in 1998. While Schaeffer was volunteering at the University Museum, Valena told her about a mannequin-making workshop she could take at the Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass. This brought new techniques to the museum, where the clothing used to be stuffed with tissue paper.

"She's amazing, very passionate about history and textiles," Valena said. "She tells history through a dress [and] sort of unravels history through clothing."

Schaeffer also worked with the University Museum of Art - separate from the University Museum - for 10 years before she talked with her husband, figured out numbers and decided to open Schaeffer Studios, where she makes mannequins and reproduction clothing full-time in her basement in North Berwick, Maine.

"I could be flipping burgers in a year," she said. "The reason I thought I could make a go at this is there are so many tiny little museums in the area, and historical societies, but they're volunteer-run."

The process for making these mannequins is an intense one; the first step is to figure out when the garment was made. She looks at the trends of different decades using paintings and photographs to identify the clothing as it would have looked at that time.

"You're dealing with a body that's been altered by corsets and by petticoats and hoopskirts," Schaeffer said. "In order to make the garment look right it has to have all those things present. I start by measuring to see my general dimensions ... then I start carving."

Ethafoam - Schaeffer's main material - is a standard for the museum industry because it does not contain chemicals that release gases that can harm the garments.

She carves a form out of the ethafoam that is too small for the clothes as to not stress the seams, and to leave room for polyester padding. Lastly, she adds a polyester cover layer.

The entire process takes her about two days. She has made over 100 mannequins and the cost for each is about $800. Some projects - like a mannequin and partial reproduction she did for the Moffat-Ladd House, run by the Portsmouth Historical Society - cost more.

Schaeffer received a piece of fabric that used to be a skirt. Curators from the Moffat-Ladd House wanted her to reproduce the missing pieces to make it the skirt it used to be.

Schaeffer could still see where the folds were at that point and folded the skirt back into its original shape.

"I get them flat in an acid-free box and they haven't been worn for a while, and a lot of times they're wrinkled even though people have been taking care of them," Schaeffer said.

Since 2004 Schaeffer has worked on various mannequins and restorations, such as a dress from 1810 for a War of 1812 exhibit for the PHS.

"She works with the clothing," Sandra Rux, PHS curator, said. "She's revitalizing our clothing."

Wow, Schaffer is passing on her knowledge by hosting workshops for small museums and working with students, such as history major Sydney Holewa.

Holewa is conducting a research project for her independent study in the theater department using decades of clothing and embellishments from the UNH collection, and comparing them with costumes worn by actors.

Along with the mannequins and book for the University Museum, Schaeffer is working on a book for a Chicago publisher, but she does not have a deadline for it.

"It's a weird job. People ask me what I do and I have to explain for a long time," Schaeffer said. "It's cool and it's fun and it's working."

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