True History of the Kelly Gang Dresses.jpg
Costume dresses from True History of the Kelly Gang (2019). Image: Egmont Contreras.
Stories & Ideas

Fri 11 Sep 2020

What is a costume conservator? A look into the world of a textiles historian

Craft Film Interview Preservation
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Displaying iconic costumes in museums isn't a case of just putting them on a mannequin. These cinematic masterpieces require the same kind of care as other artworks.

There are very few jobs that require you to learn soap recipes from the 1600s. There are even fewer jobs that have staff members willing to read book after book about laundry techniques from the 1800s. Yet costume conservator Marion Parker has exactly that kind of job, getting to combine very specific aspects of historical research, cutting edge technology, dressmaking, and a love of cinema all in one.

“I often call myself a textiles historian to people who don’t know what a conservator is,” she says. “Then they say ‘oh, do you repair things?’ And I usually reply that ‘I help them last longer’. I don’t repair them, I help people enjoy them, I help institutions share them, and I get collections on display for the world to enjoy in the best possible way.”

New Zealand-born, Parker first got “really interested in textiles” when she was nine when she discovered an old, post-World War II book about sewing. She taught herself everything in it:  from crochet and patchwork, to knitting. It wasn’t until she was 22 that she first learned about textiles conservation, having completed an English and Art History degree before starting post-graduate Museum Studies. “I like the whole picture,” says Parker. “I like manufacturing techniques and what it will tell you about the story because those two worlds – the curatorial and the conservation – there’s always been a real wall between them and I think that’s changing. I’m interested in blurring the lines.”

Over a 20-year career she has carved out a niche for herself as a world-renowned costume conservator, working out of Melbourne and getting her hands on everything from David Bowie’s signature stage outfits to the iconic looks of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994). She was also behind the staging and conservation of the Academy Award-winning costumes from The Last Emperor (1987). Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, the historical epic tells the story of Pu Yi, the last monarch of China as he transitions from being an emperor to a citizen. The film – which won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture – was celebrated for its use of colour to represent the different stages of Pu Yi’s life, but also for its striking costumes. “What’s interesting is I haven’t had specific experience with imperial Chinese robes because they’re held by the Shanghai Palace and nobody else,” says Parker. “I’ve seen the originals on display, but the difference between the original 19th century garment and a garment that’s made to look like that for the movies is there’s always a huge difference both in material weights but also the number of layers.”

Princess of the Blood robes costume

James Acheson's Princess of the Blood robes from The Last Emperor (Italy / USA, 1987). Image: Egmont Contreras.

With more than 9000 thousand extras to dress inside the elaborate Chinese court, The Last Emperor costume designer James Acheson used theatrical techniques to trick the camera and employed cost-effective methods to stay on schedule and budget. This included affordable screen-printed rayon with aluminium casts of embroidery motifs to look like intricate silk and headdresses made from tea strainers.

“The imperial robes made for the film are digitally printed so they have a 1980s print emulsion on a surface which is made of plastic,” says Parker. “It’s very sensitive to treatment and it has old registration marks on it, so there are printer’s makers in the corners. People assume it would be hand-embroided, but it would probably be thousands of hours on each and every item so they just printed it to appear like that on film, but it means that I’m dealing with modern materials, I’m dealing with synthetics.” The fabrics are also “thinner and lighter weight” than what would be traditionally used, making the costumes more comfortable for the actors wearing them and able to withstand the heat of a soundstage.

An additional element to not just conserving but presenting the costumes accurately is the intention, with Parker having to watch The Last Emperor over and over again to study the way the costumes need to appear when in motion and when stationary so she can faithfully recreate that through building custom boning or hunting down unique mannequins. “That’s where the history comes in, because if I’m working with an 1860s costume, I know what the silhouette would have been like, so I know what sort of mannequin shape you’re looking for,” says Parker. “When we were working on The Last Emperor, it’s not a Western model that we want: we want a formal, symmetrical model pose because the Chinese history is completely different. In the early photography, their whole way of moving and the way the clothes sat on the body was completely different.”

A lot of the work is about “achieving the right silhouette” says Parker, with her skills as a dressmaker particularly handy in this case. “I know all the dimensions of the neck to the waist to across the shoulders. Those are different for a Chinese costume, they don’t fit a shopfront mannequin as that what’s in fashion and even the museum specific mannequins tend to be Westernised.” It’s an ongoing issue for not just her, but other costume conservators trying to recreate the magic of iconic designs from the film and television screens on display in the real world: especially those that break new ground, like the frocks from The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert.

“I’m working on costumes that are worn by men, made as drag queen costumes, so they’re narrow across the hips but they’re made for really big fake busts,” says Parker, who had to build out custom mannequins after several attempts at trying other options. “As a conservator, I’m also advising on the mannequin plastic type: whether or not it’s stable, what it’s flammability is, whether or not it’s letting off gas, what it’s going to do for the long-term display … it’s trying to balance between not causing harm to the object and then getting an appearance that is similar enough to the film.”

Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) provided a similar type of challenge with the costumes made by Alice Babidge. “The Ned Kelly ones are film replicas of 1870s dresses, but they’re made for men, not drag queens, so they have no busts and triangular shoulders,” says Parker, who eventually fitted them on male mannequins. “I put a sub-structure together underneath one of the Ned Kelly dresses because it’s black lace, so it’s transparent and I need to use things that are semi-transparent too, so they won’t interfere with the appearance. That’s what I spend a lot of my time on, working to get the silhouette right, and it’s fascinating. Working across genders is hard and we need more non-gender specific mannequins, but that will happen eventually.”

Until it does, those and others like her in the field have to remain inventive by combing several different types of techniques and skills learned over decades as a costume conservator. “There’s all those little details, which I think is what I find really fun because I get to see the inside of the thing,” says Parker. “Each side informs the other. Working with original costumes and the original dates and then looking at the film replicas of those dates, you can see what was taken out and what was kept. Even things like shoes from the 1850s weren’t differentiated between left and rights: they were just straights and interchangeable. That might seem like a small piece of information, but it’s the detail that makes all the difference.”

–  Maria Lewis

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