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After a Fashion 

History joins haute couture on the runway at a new Shelburne Museum exhibit

Pity the New Yorkers, Parisians and Londoners who think they exist at the center of high fashion. Haven’t they heard? This summer, Vermont has the runway of the season.

Inside the inconspicuous brick Webb Gallery at Shelburne Museum, a raised catwalk is filled with mannequins dressed in haute-couture gowns designed by the likes of Oscar de la Renta, Balenciaga and Chanel. Among their spectacularly sequined, hand-corded and pouffed-out ranks is a handful of frocks that clearly date from an earlier age but look just as dazzling: a glass-beaded black flapper dress, a courtly red velvet gown from the Gilded Age. Contemporary models strut down an actual runway in a video playing on one wall, and the throb of vaguely techno-sounding music fills the air. Where are we, again?

Ah, yes, the museum of Americana — quilts, carousels, wooden decoys, lighthouses and so on — founded by über-collector Electra Havemeyer Webb. The daughter-in-law of Shelburne Farms founders Lila Vanderbilt and William Seward Webb bought Shelburne Museum’s 45 acres in 1947 to house the first of her many collections: a group of 28 horse-drawn carriages donated by her husband’s youngest brother.

Webb liked to dress well — she patronized New York designer Hattie Carnegie and a shoe designer known simply as “Bob” — but she never collected dresses for her museum. So, what are actual haute-couture frocks, some from the designers’ last runway season, doing at a folk-art museum?

“It’s a storage project that ended up in an exhibit,” senior curator Jean Burks explains with a chuckle about “In Fashion: High Style, 1690-2011,” the museum’s newest special display. On the day before the opening, she is striding purposefully down one of the grounds’ lilac-lined paths toward the Webb Gallery.

Burks and her conservation team discovered the museum had “a fabulous collection” of clothing three years ago, when they were impelled to catalog and remove some 3000 dresses from a storage facility scheduled for humidity-control and insulation upgrades. Aside from a few dresses made for Webb’s mother, Louisine Havemeyer, most were donated after Webb’s death in 1960. With the help of a nationally recognized costume specialist, the Shelburne team identified the six most stunning, and historically significant, dresses.

Then, in keeping with the museum’s mission of tying exhibits of past objects to the present, Burks sent contemporary designers photos of all six and invited them to submit a gown from their own collections that resonated with one of the historical gowns.

The team also selected Gilded Age women’s bodices, capes, pieces from Webb’s 1950s wardrobe, four men’s vests (including one from the 1750s) and an extraordinary (but select) range of women’s shoes, fans and hats to complete the historical content of the exhibit. One pair of shoes dates from 1690, making them the oldest objects in the show.

Of course, fashion is all about the future, too. So, extending the museum’s mission of contemporaneity even further, Burks created a contest for students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City to design the bottom half of those late-19th- and early-20th-century bodices. The results, and winners, are showcased in a room of the exhibit entitled “Complete the Look”.

“In Fashion” is, on one level, about pure visual pleasure. “When people walk into that main room, I hear gasps. People are stunned,” Burks notes.

What’s not so visible is the work that went into creating the exhibit. “I have to say, this has been the most conservation-intensive project in my 15 years here,” the curator admits. Over the course of more than a year, Burks explains, costume specialist Lynne Bassett traveled from Sturbridge, Mass., eight times, staying for a week each time to review the museum’s clothing collection with Burks, objects conservator Nancie Ravenel and two conservation fellows. During five of those eight weeks, says Ravenel, Bassett and the team “went through 100 to 150 dresses a day.”

Once the pieces had been selected, Ravenel meticulously examined and researched the construction of each item. Many had been donated with no records, or limited ones. “Over the years, people just had nice things and decided, ‘I guess I’ll give that to the Shelburne Museum,’” Burks explains.

What most impressed Ravenel, she says, was “just the sheer number of kinds of material involved,” including “sequins made of plastic with metal attached to them” and “metal strips used in embroidery that have been stamped.”

One task involved identifying the wide range of bird feathers used in fans, hats and one 1880s paisley cape so thick with tiny feathers that it looks like it’s trimmed in fur. That project led Burks and Ravenel’s research to the Audubon Society, which originated as a direct response to the near extinction of some bird species for the sake of women’s adornment.

Ravenel then undertook the conservation of each item, creating the bustles and understructures that would have filled out the original garments, reattaching beads and sequins, and creating the form on which to show each dress. Because gowns were custom-sewn to fit their buyers, she explains, “you sort of had to build the person.” With the help of textile arts specialist Nicandra Galper, Ravenel began the daunting project of building each form two years ago. She cut some from foam and constructed others from the chopped-up parts of commercially available mannequins.

A generalist in objects conservation, Ravenel sent out one particularly deteriorated dress — the Parisian-made gray silk gown from 1900 — to a specialist textile conservator in Albany, N.Y., who spent “25 to 30 hours” just stabilizing the fabric. Even with that work, she notes, “any time you move the skirt at all, it opens up a new tear. It’s a little heart-in-your-stomach even to get it off the mount,” Ravenel adds, so the dress will most likely never be seen in public again.

Despite all that conservation work, says Burks, “The hardest part was the concept. How do you make a cohesive show?”

In the end, the idea she settled on was a simple and appealing one: a fashion show. “It wouldn’t make sense to a costume historian,” she admits, “but it’s a very people-friendly idea for the public.”

Engaging the big contemporary fashion houses was another project entirely. One doesn’t just cold-call Carolina Herrera, comments Burks. Instead, the curator contacted design houses through certain members of the Shelburne Museum board of trustees who “are very tuned in to the fashion world and know the designers personally.” Burks never talked directly to a designer; she corresponded only with their assistants. “They [the designers] are thinking about next year’s collection, not what they’re lending to a museum,” she surmises.

Some assistants sent back emails with pictures of several proposed pairings. In other cases, dresses from Paris, New York or London simply arrived at the museum’s doorstep — some in basic FedEx boxes, others in specialized crates costing thousands of dollars themselves. Six of the houses chose to send dresses inspired by one hyper-feminine, nude-colored 1930s scoopneck dress sequined in flower shapes. That grouping is set apart from the runway on a separate stage.

Burks never heard back from a few of the designers. Others “really got it,” she says, citing Karl Lagerfeld, the impresario of the Chanel line, who sent a sequined, belted gown in ivory organdy to complement the collection’s glass-beaded, tiny-waisted stunner in gray silk by Whelen Importer (which Burks researched but could find no information about).

Remarkably, the two dresses — from 1900 and 1988 — look equally current side by side. “What’s old is new again,” Burks remarks.

She adds that her “greatest fear” was that the designers would be offended by the suggestion that their work was inspired by the past. “Nobody balked,” she says. “Nobody said, ‘You want me to say that my up-to-the-minute, latest collection is inspired by something that’s a hundred years old?’ I thought that was very interesting: Not one of them had trouble with that.”

One pairing was “an easy one,” says Burks, a brass and Shaker furniture specialist. In the course of researching the two big fashion houses of the Gilded Era — Charles Frederick Worth’s House of Worth and Emile Pingat — she learned that the family-run House of Worth had closed in 1952 but was restarted just this year by an Italian designer, Giovanni Bedin. Bedin’s renamed WORTH Couture deliberately echoes its 19th-century predecessor’s close-fitting bodices and use of lace, updating the look by chopping off the length. To complement an original House of Worth (that fragile gray silk piece), Bedin sent a wild black-and-gold chantilly-lace tutu dress that’s about as long as a miniskirt.

By comparison, Webb’s own 1950s wardrobe, in a separate room, looks a little humdrum. Two custom-made poodle skirts with felt appliqués depicting Webb’s New York apartment and her children’s names, among other personal references, remind one of the museum’s folksier collections. But “In Fashion,” as a whole, is closer to her vision for the museum than one would think.

Like the other 150,000 objects in Shelburne Museum, these high-end dresses — and the shoes, hats, capes and men’s vests that fill the exhibit’s other rooms — are beautiful exemplars of functional art.

“It’s always been a mystery to me why this is called ‘decorative arts,’ while paintings, which have no other purpose but decoration, are called ‘art,’” declares Burks. “I like the three-dimensional things you wear, sit on — the functional stuff.”

And because of that functionality, it’s easy to imagine taking the dresses down and trying them on.

“This one I love,” Burks says, pausing in front of a 2011 House of Emmanuel Ungaro cardigan-jacket-and-skirt set embroidered entirely in sequins and pearl flowers, some of which are attached only at the center and look like they could be plucked off.

“This you could wear,” says the curator, herself dressed quintessentially Vermont in comfortable flats and a long skirt. “Some of these I don’t have any events to wear them to; this I’d wear to the opening.”

Want to see for yourself?

“In Fashion: High Style, 1690-2011,” including “Complete the Look,” Shelburne Museum. Through October 30. Info, 985-3346. shelburnemuseum.org

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Amy Lilly

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Amy Lilly has been a contributing arts writer for Seven Days since 2007.

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