A common museum practice is to loan artifacts to other institutions. This past spring, CHM conservator Holly Lundberg and her team prepared an Ann Lowe cotillion gown (1956) to go on loan to the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts.
Ann Cole Lowe (1898–1981) was an African American fashion designer whose exquisite formal and debutante gowns were sought after by the rich and famous from the 1920s through the 1960s. Lowe is known for her fine handiwork and the use of floral motifs, and though Lowe did not receive credit at the time, she created the iconic wedding gown worn by Jacqueline Bouvier upon her marriage to John F. Kennedy.
The Lowe gown from our costume collection was worn by Carole Duke Denham on December 22, 1956, at the Passavant Cotillion in Chicago. The gown is embellished with fabric appliqués of long-stemmed roses, faux pearls, sequins, glass seed beads, and rhinestones on the bodice and down the sides of the skirt. It has a boned bodice, full skirt, center-back zipper, and an attached underskirt of taffeta lined with a stiff nonwoven material edged with synthetic horsehair at the hem.
After it was requested for loan, the gown was brought to the conservation lab to be assessed for condition, treatment needs, and recommendations for display and handling, as well as for any required conservation treatment. Although heavily wrinkled and creased from long-term storage, the gown was found to be in fairly good condition. The damage that had occurred was largely from normal wear and tear, including some spots and stains, soiling at the hem, and a nine-inch-long tear in the interfacing layer of the underskirt. There were also loose and missing embellishments and partially detached fabric appliqués due in part to aged, brittle embroidery threads and wear.
Over the course of three months, the conservation team painstakingly conserved the dress to resemble its former glory: they secured loose or detaching appliqués, beads, sequins, pearls, and rhinestones; patched the tear in the interlining of the underskirt, and reduced wrinkles and creases throughout. Reshaping of the flattened and crushed flower appliqués was accomplished by hand with the aid of a localized humidification technique whereby a small piece of blotting paper, dampened with deionized water, was carefully wrapped around each flower petal for less than a minute to relax the textile fibers. The flower petals were then gently manipulated back into a bud shape and left to reacclimatize. The Lowe gown is currently on display in PEM’s exhibition Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion, which is open through March 14, 2021.
See more items in CHM’s renowned costume collection, which includes a pair of Michael Jordan’s shoes, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, and Bertha Palmer’s gowns.
Clockwise from left: Ann Lowe cotillion gown, 1956. Gift of Mrs. Charles Chaplin, 1976.241.170. CHM, ICHi-175969. Bust of the dress with red circle indicating where rhinestones were replaced. The label of the gown. The setup to repair a tear in the interlining of the underskirt. All images by CHM staff.
Caring for Your Collection
Wondering how to take care of your own beloved garments and textiles? For the winter 2020–21 issue of The Intelligent Collector magazine, CHM collection manager Jessica Pushor spoke to Debbie Carlson for her article “Tending Your Delicates” and describes proper storage methods for various items in our costume collection, such as menswear, silk dresses, sports jerseys, and shoes.