I recently attended the Costume Society of American’s yearly conference in Hartfort, CT. One of the best parts of it was getting to visit Hartford’s excellent art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum. Of special interest to a clothing crazed person like me was their exhibit of costumes from the Ballets Russes. These were designed by Leon Bakst, who worked on the Ballet Russes with Serge Diaghilev from 1909 until 1921.
The Ballets Russes was based in Paris, and the exotic costumes were an immediate sensation in Europe. Because of the costumes, especially those in Scheherazade, 1910, all things Oriental became extremely fashionable. Designers such as Poiret were inspired by the Eastern-looking costumes.
The costumes in the Wadsworth’s collection, from the 1921 production of The Sleeping Princess, were bought sight unseen in 1996. When they opened the boxes, they found the fabric to be in an advanced state of deterioration, with the silk lying in chunks in the boxes. The University of Rhode Island’s Conservation Laboratory was called in to try and reconstruct the costumes.
After much debate, it was decided to take the pieces of several costumes to reconstruct one for exhibition. It would be like taking four houses that have been blown up, and taking the pieces, building them over a new shell so that there is one good house. So the costumes that are on display have been carefully constructed from thousands of bits of shattered silk.
Photo copyright Wadsworth Atheneum
In this example, the silk was carefully mounted over a sheer based and stitched for support. The man’s costume was in comparatively good condition, with most of the damage being due to rust and mold.
There is another costume, consisting of a velvet vest and silk skirt, in which the pieces were fused onto a base. For comparison, a costume in the as found condition is also on display.
In a few days, I’ll post my journal drawings. In the meantime, check out the website of the Wadsworth Atheneum, and if you are in the Connecticut area, check out the museum!