This lovely bridal gown—worn first by Eva Selbin in 1912, then altered for use by her daughter for a second generation of wear in 1936—has found new life once again… as the newest addition to the Skirball’s core exhibition, Visions and Values.
We were excited to help bring this treasured family heirloom in our permanent collection back into the galleries. As we prepared to display it, we checked in with our Senior Curator, Grace Cohen Grossman, who had studied the object in depth when the Skirball presented the exhibition Romance and Ritual: Celebrating the Jewish Wedding. Grace pointed out details of the garment. “The style of the silk satin dress with high collar and asymmetrical bands of lace is typical of the Belle Époque period, prior to World War I,” she explained. “It has a romantic, ethereal look.”
But it is no simple matter to take an object from collection storage and place it on view. Often preparations begin weeks, sometimes months, in advance during the curatorial research and conservation phases, before museum staff can even consider an installation date. Once that work is done and an object has been prepped for display, the installation itself is no piece of (wedding) cake!
So how does it happen? It begins with a mannequin…
… which must be vacuumed and prepped for display. This includes measuring it for proper fit, making adjustments to its height and waist size, and removing the arms to facilitate the dressing process.Prop accessories, like shoes and slip, are added first to minimize handling of the dress once draped onto the mannequin. To keep things simple, the “wig” comes off!
The gown is made of silk satin and is now 100 years old. While stable enough for display, it’s very delicate! Great care must be taken in its handling. We Skirball registrars work with the conservator to lift the dress over and onto the mannequin. It takes many hands to deal with such a fragile garment.
Transporting a fully dressed mannequin from collections storage to the museum gallery—a walk down the aisle, so to speak—also requires many hands for stabilization.The existing display must be removed… so that the new bridal gown can take center stage in our Life Cycle gallery.
Once on the mannequin, we were able to appreciate more fully the style of the gown. Grace explained that it illustrates what was in vogue at the time. “Women’s fashion at the time shifted away from elaborate draping and embellishment to relatively more practical clothing with fewer frills and flounces. The new ready-to-wear phenomenon in clothing manufacture, embraced by young working women, featured the skirt and a shirtwaist—which became emblematic of their newfound freedom and independence. Eva’s dress, with its popular middy collar and vertical shirtwaist style, reflects this transitional period in fashion.”