University Museum showing an exhibit on Victorian dresses
Published: Friday, November 2, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
On the bottom floor of Dimond Library, there is a dress. The neckline and arms of the shiny green dress are fringed with textured black fabric, with the bodice clinging to the mannequin’s frame before billowing out into a long, pleated hoop skirt.
As part of its fall “Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail” exhibit, the University Museum is displaying 25 Victorian dresses and garments from UNH’s Irma Bowen Textile Collection. The exhibit shows off wedding dresses, funeral gowns, women’s business suits and walking dresses of the era, showcasing how seamstresses of the day used to make the intricate folds, ripples and patterns in the fabric.
Astrida Schaeffer, the exhibit’s guest curator, is an independent contractor and makes a living carving mannequins for museums’ clothing displays. This will be Schaeffer’s second time using the collection, as it was previously presented in a 1998 exhibit at the university.
“In 1990 I was taking a museum studies class, and one of the students in class mentioned (the collection). I got in contact with Dale (the museum curator) and had my first look at the collection,” Schaeffer said.
Fourteen years after running her first exhibit, Schaeffer decided it was time to bring the collection out again. According to her, the exhibit has been a huge success with museum-goers.
“We’ve had people from the Textile History Museum come, locals, students, staff, faculty; we had a couple of women from the American Sowing Guild come by. We had to extend the exhibit’s run to March,” Schaeffer said.
According to Schaeffer, the story she wants to tell with these dresses goes along with their history in teaching.
“All these things came to UNH as teaching examples, to show students how clothes were made,” she said. “It was interesting to take that aspect again, and break down the basic design approaches.”
Along one wall of the exhibit are picture cards and fabric swatches, showing how the seamstresses of the day would have made each of the ruffles, ripples and hemming of the time period. The museum is also working with Blue Tree Publishing to put out a coffee-table book on the dresses in the exhibit, detailing how each one was made.
One of the biggest problems that Schaeffer encountered when setting up the collection was finding all the parts of the clothes. Schaeffer’s favorite dress of the collection is an asymmetrical walking dress from the early 1880s. When she first found it, it was missing its underskirt, and Schaeffer said she feared she would have to construct a new one as a replacement.
“When I found the underskirt in a different box, if there had been dogs in the room they would have run away from the noise I was making,” she said. “There is so much going on in this dress, the colors, piping, edge-binding, pleating, ruching…”
According to Schaeffer, each mannequin wears its dress differently, as she carved every mannequin in the University Museum specifically for the dress it is wearing. Schaeffer compared the looser back of one dress to the tightly fitted bodice of another, showing how each of the women who wore them would have walked, moved and carried themselves in their daily lives.
“Clothes are the most personal things we have; everyone deals with them in some way,” she said. “They are windows into the past to show that those were people, too.”