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Sarah Walton

Dress and Textile Display Specialist, Manchester
The Costume Society Conference – The Power Of Gold

The Costume Society’s 50th anniversary began with a visit to the Clothworkers' Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion where we studied a range of samples relating to the theme of gold. Curator Susan North introduced us to the use of gold and silver gilded thread as well as the use of alternative materials to imitate gold gilt, their role in society and current conservation issues with the ageing of these materials. The differing gold contents and the improvisation of cheaper materials proved an interesting contrast in the way certain pieces had degraded revealing there true nature.

I was also able to ask Susan Smith, manager of the Clothworkers’ Centre about the storage at Blythe house as the majority of the V&A’s dress and textile collection is stored here using advanced facilities. She talked me through and showed me their methods of storing different kinds of objects to allow safe yet accessible storage, packing materials and transportation methods. This related directly to my work at Manchester City Galleries where we are currently trying to implement better storage facilities for our dress collection, to improve collection care as well as access.

The course included a tour of the exhibition Savage Beauty where I was able to observe and talk to a conservator about the complex and extreme mounting and installation techniques on such a large scale. Delivering visual impact while remaining sympathetic to the dresses, I learnt that many of the mannequins had to be entirely cut away and rebuilt by the conservation team in order to ensure safe display of each piece, something I have not yet had to tackle in my own work and have documented for future reference. This was followed by a talk form curator Claire Wilcox on the curatorial decisions behind the show and how it developed from the original exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The course has strengthened my knowledge across various periods of dress and textiles and subjects relating to the theme of gold, including the use of gilded threads in embroidery and weave to portray wealth and status, the changing use, manufacture and appeals of lurex; a metallic coated plastic thread and the study of unique methods of producing metallic printed fabric particularly by Maria Monaci Gallenga and Mariano Fortuny in the early 1900’s. The knowledge of these subjects will help me in identifying these materials, when necessary, within our own collections. The conference also covered the use of jewellery to adorn garments in Tudor and Stuart times, the relationships between dress and gold in storytelling and a talk by Amanda Vickery on the story behind the phrase ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ addressing issued of age in Georgian fashion.

Over the duration of the course I was able to network with a range of delegates form different institutions, including students and teachers in the field of historic and contemporary dress and textiles, young ambassadors of the society, curators and academic researchers, conservators and dress and textile display specialists. This has broadened my contacts of professional individuals  and institutions across the UK and abroad which I hope to draw on as I progress throughout my career.