Conserving a Chanel

The dress needed help. A 90-year-old, Art Deco–inspired masterpiece of beaded silk crepe by celebrated couturiere Gabrielle Chanel, it was practically falling apart. The fabric was so brittle it was shattering, and beads spilled from it at the slightest touch. Hamish Bowles, international editor at large for Vogue,  glimpsed the piece, he says, “in a small box at a vintage fair in London and instantly recognized it as an element of a Chanel.” A little deeper in the box lay what appeared to be a separate tier of the dress, seemingly designed to attach below the waist. A month later, by coincidence, Bowles found a similar version of the outfit, which added to the puzzle. “I wasn’t sure that the [first] dress was redeemable,” he says, “but having seen the thoughtful and meticulous work that FIT’s conservation program students had done on a Callot Soeurs ensemble and a Poiret cape, I thought it might be worth seeing if the dress could be conserved in such a way that it might one day even be exhibited.”

When the outfit arrived at FIT, it made an impression on Bethany Viviano ’18, then a student specializing in conservation (and known for her hand skills) in the Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice MA program. “It looked like it was worn quite a bit,” she says. Viviano took on this project for her thesis.

With no label, the outfit required authentication. Viviano scoured online archives, magazines, and other sources from the New York Public Library, and sketches of Chanel garments from the Max Meyer Collection of drawings, held in FIT’s Special Collections within the Gladys Marcus Library. She found a second match for the dress—totally intact and labeled—at the Museo de la Moda in Santiago, Chile, and through comparisons and sleuthing, authenticated the piece and dated it to late 1926 or early ’27. She studied the outfit for a year and a half before beginning the conservation treatment.

Viviano soon discovered the sorts of details that make couture couture and make treatment  difficult. For example, the crepe had an idiosyncratic weave structure—twin “Z” twist yarns combined with twin “S” twists in both warp and weft directions; usually “S” and “Z” twists alternate. “I’ve never seen that before and I never met anybody who’d seen it before,” she says. The unique weave gave the garment more texture and made it slinkier.

The garment was also affected by “inherent vice,” meaning its own materials were causing it to self-destruct. The heavy beads tore the fragile fabric. Over many months, Viviano attached the deteriorating dress to a sheer yet sturdy support fabric of silk crepeline and re-enforced the entire hem of the piece with a whip stitch. First, the new material had to be dyed to match the original, which took two months and over 100 dye recipes. She also learned about bead making.

Her exhaustive efforts paid off: “I was delighted with the transformational results,” Bowles said. Viviano has turned her passion into a vocation: She now works as a conservator at the noted Textile Conservation Workshop in South Salem, New York.

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