MASTERPIECE THEATER:
To Preserve and Protect

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sarah Scaturro, Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice ’10, confronts the “inherent vice” in Charles James’s clothes

Visitors to Charles James: Beyond Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute have been bowled over by gorgeousness and glamour. The New York Times says this “outstanding” exhibition, which closes August 10, “confirm[s] James’s ceaseless artistry.” The show inaugurates the exhibition space called the Anna Wintour Costume Center. In one room, the Anglo-American designer’s spectacular ball gowns are displayed on invisible mounts so that the dresses seem to float, pristine and perfect. The prestigious architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro crafted the much-noted exhibition and digital design. Video screens show animated sequences that demonstrate, with scientific precision, how James constructed his dresses.
What visitors will never see is the white, antiseptic lab tucked behind the Wintour space. The lab is emphatically unglamorous, but without it the elegant fashion displays would be impossible. This large, open, apparently dust-free room, containing mobile workstations and metal racks full of garments in archival boxes, is the domain of the Costume Institute’s conservation team. Wearing lab coats and latex gloves, they examine pieces, execute carefully planned treatments, and study fibers under microscopes and on computers. Four alumni of the FIT master’s program now called Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice work here—Cassandra Gero ’06, Miriam Murphy ’11, Glenn Petersen ’91, and Sarah Scaturro ’10, who serves as head of the lab.

Too dark? Too bad. Scaturro worked with the lighting designers to make sure the levels were safe for garments like this “Four Leaf Clover” gown. She also collaborated with the exhibition designers so the elaborate “robot” laser technology, visible to the left of the dress, wouldn’t burn or damage it. Murphy did exacting conservation work on the hem, underarm, and lace.

Too dark? Too bad. Scaturro worked with the lighting designers to make sure the levels were safe for garments like this “Four Leaf Clover” gown. She also collaborated with the exhibition designers so the elaborate “robot” laser technology, visible to the left of the dress, wouldn’t burn or damage it. Murphy did exacting conservation work on the hem, underarm, and lace.

Scaturro is an appealing woman with wavy hair that spills over her shoulders. She speaks quietly, conveying the moral seriousness that characterizes her field. “Conservation is grounded in the preservation of cultural heritage; it’s highly ethical,” she says. “It’s a unique combination of science, chemistry, art history, and hand skills—actual technique.” Prior to her position at The Met, which she’s held for two years, she was a textile conservator at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.
The James exhibition presented particular challenges to the conservation team. James, who once provocatively stated, “The feminine figure is intrinsically wrong, and can be corrected only by good posture and fashion,” made idiosyncratic clothes for iconoclastic women. In his quest for perfection, he spent years and some $20,000 crafting the design of a single sleeve. “James garments are always a lot more complex than they look,” Scaturro says of preparing the pieces for display. “If you’re working on a sleeve, it’s not just a simple sleeve.”

In addition, the clothes suffer from “inherent vice,” an art-historical term that, as Scaturro and Petersen explain in a chapter they co-wrote for the James catalogue, “refer[s] to a quality intrinsic to an artifact that is the very cause of [its] ruin.” All clothes have this characteristic to some degree. When worn, they are subject to wear and tear, staining, and perspiration, which can be acidic. James garments can be particularly challenging: For his sculptural garments, he draped soft, organic fabrics like silk over stiff, inorganic materials—borrowed from his earlier career as a milliner—causing stress to the textiles. Furthermore, his somewhat erratic career meant his pieces were often improperly stored. In order to look perfect on display, every single garment required the conservators’ attention. In the end, Scaturro decided some objects could not be shown at all; others, because of their fragility, are on display for possibly the last time.
Petersen addressed some of the greatest challenges, particularly the back of the bodice of the brown “Swan” dress (a similar dress appears in the black-and-white photo on the previous spread). James created a nested chevron design using chiffon layered over satin. Over the years, the delicate, sheer chiffon disintegrated; yet patching over this flaw with new chiffon would be noticeable—and distracting—because of the cream-colored satin underneath. So Petersen created a whole new surface by fashioning a precise, finely wrought reproduction of the damaged portion. The result is aesthetically satisfying to the viewer, and also protects the vulnerable area. Furthermore, as Scaturro points out, conservation ethics mean that every treatment must be entirely reversible. “We have not permanently altered the nature of the garment,” she says, proudly.

Though he identified as homosexual, James married Nancy Lee Gregory, seen here in his “Swan” gown, 1955. They had two children. Photo by Cecil Beaton.

Though he identified as homosexual, James married Nancy Lee Gregory, seen here in his “Swan” gown, 1955. They had two children. Photo by Cecil Beaton.

All members of the team collaborated with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, but Scaturro singles out Petersen’s contribution to the videos the architects created. He studied the gowns, worked out James’s elaborate techniques, and described them in a way that made such visualizations possible. Scaturro calls Petersen, who documented the Brooklyn Museum collection with Jan Glier Reeder ’87 and has studied James extensively, “one of the most experienced, skilled, costume conservators in the world.”
Miriam Murphy worked on the “Four Leaf Clover” dress that features black lace. The underarms of the bodice had areas of loss due to sweat, so Murphy masked them with fabrics she first custom dyed, then covered with strategic couching stitches in fine silk thread. James incorporated a nonwoven synthetic called Pellon—a blend of cotton, acetate, and nylon bonded with synthetic rubber. At the hem of the skirt, the garment’s rigid understructure had torn through the silk shantung that overlaid it, so Murphy executed a similar treatment there, including custom dyeing of both underlays and overlays. It is, again, unnoticeable, and completely reversible.
Scaturro was surprised by how often James used synthetic materials. Before treatments could begin, all fibers had to be identified; much of that work was by Cassandra Gero, who consulted throughout the project with Denyse Montegut, the chair of FIT’s Fashion and Textile Studies program. “Denyse helped with some tricky things,” Scaturro says. “A lot of the materials that look like silk are actually synthetics. They’re either blends, like a rayon warp and a cotton weft, or rayon and silk.”
From working on the show, Scaturro says she was struck by James’s perseverance. “As a human being, he was never done. He was constantly reworking his concepts. He would redo sleeves, he would let out hems, he would rework the bodice, the waistline; he was always progressing, as a man. I don’t know if that means he was never satisfied,” she adds, “but he was a true artist.”
Scaturro has plenty of work ahead as well. Exhibitions like the James show, she points out, are only one tiny part of her job: “I’m doing loans, acquisitions, collections issues, future exhibitions, you name it.” New projects include a dye kitchen and a synthetic fiber identification project. She lets out adeep, satisfied breath, and smiles. “We have a very busy schedule.” —AJ

ALUMNI HELP FASHION THE MET’S COSTUME SHOWS

In addition to Reeder, Scaturro, Petersen, Murphy, and Gero, who are all graduates of the MA program now called Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, The Met’s Costume Institute employs many other FIT alumni. Also from that program: Elizabeth Bryan ’03, associate research curator/collections manager; Anne Reilly ’10, research associate, Fashion Design ’98; Tracy Jenkins ’12, research assistant; and Anna Yanofsky ’12, research assistant. From other majors: Mellissa Huber, Fabric Styling ’10, Fashion Merchandising Management AAS ’08, research assistant; and Julie Lê, Fashion Design, librarian.