Conservator Cara Varnell Working on Claudette Colbert Gown
Probably no other issue has caused me more confusion or soul searching than the battle of conservation vs. restoration. Because my goals have always been to show the pieces to the public, and I want the pieces to look as good as possible. What should and should not be done to bring back some of the original “magic” and not destroy the historical integrity of the garment. A true conservationist’s mission is to NOT alter or change a garment in any way because all the damage and all the alterations have become part of a garment’s history. I find myself with a foot in each camp.
Years ago, I embarked on the largest restoration project I would ever undertake. The costume worn by Marlene Dietrich in the film “Angel.”
The solidly beaded ensemble was so fragile, it could never be put on a mannequin without falling apart. I met with conservationists and museum textile people and many told me to leave it as it was. I decided that rather than leaving the piece as it was, a box of un-showable beads, I would have it restored. Five years later and after thousands of hours of running new threads though beads, attaching them to a new reinforcing backing and months spent finding the exact beads to replace those that were missing, it was restored and was once again a beautiful thing that could be exhibited. Will this be looked upon as something noble or a crime- who can say? But one of the most beautiful costumes created survives and can be seen as it was intended to be. It was a personal decision and one not made lightly.
I DO have issues when it comes to completely replacing much of the fabric of a costume, because it then becomes a copy of the original.
I do not have an issue if small pieces or sections of a damaged fabric are backed or replaced, if there has been attention paid to matching fabric and construction techniques as much as possible. On a costume worn by Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight,” the 1” band of Irish crochet lace had been changed at the neckline. From photos you could see the pattern and I contacted crochet societies to see if someone could replicate it. Luckily, years later, I found on the internet, a badly deteriorated blouse of the same period with the exact lace pattern.
Could I have used a different lace, and would anyone have noticed? Probably not. But part of my enjoyment is the search and the process which I hope is a sign of respect to the original vision of the costume.
It must be remembered that a good portion of the costumes were eventually worn in other productions and underwent minor and major alterations, which also become part of the costume’s history. In my opinion, people should consult professions who deal in this field to determine how far to go. It is the personal decision of the person who owns the pieces. Most important, is that these changes should be documented, and that documentation should stay with the costume. I maintain reports and photos of before and after work done to document the piece's history.
Seriously taking care of and preserving these pieces can be expensive and it is the personal decision of the owners of the pieces to determine how far they are willing to go. I hope my personal feelings about these pieces, my respect for what they mean to the historical story of Hollywood and the story I am trying to tell with them will assure they survive to entertain and educate the public as to their historical significance.