Silk brocade and splendour: Looking at Te Papa's 18th century gowns up close video

Go behind the scenes at Te Papa's textiles conservation lab.

We use clothes to tell a story about ourselves, but as they pass from being consumer items to pieces of history, they start to tell a larger story. 

For curator Justine Olsen and conservator Anne Peranteau, the 18th century gowns on display at Te Papa speak about luxury, longevity and the way fashion has changed. While we make think of a preoccupation with status and appearances as a modern phenomenon, these dresses show people have always sought to define themselves through clothing. 

Both Olsen and Peranteau worked on European Splendour 1500-1800 for months, with Peranteau holed up in Te Papa's Tory St lab. 

Gowns and waistcoats from Te Papa's European Splendour exhibition.
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Gowns and waistcoats from Te Papa's European Splendour exhibition.

The exhibition features two 18th century gowns that would have been worn by society's elite. One in silk damask and one in brocade, both are stunning up close. 

Olsen designed the show, working with Mark Stocker. She says the word splendour itself inspired her. 

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Anne Peranteau studied at the University of Delaware. She loves Te Papa because "more than in other places you really ...
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

Anne Peranteau studied at the University of Delaware. She loves Te Papa because "more than in other places you really get to see the collections connected with people.”

"You start with a number of objects that just tickle your fancy, and start you thinking about an idea. You build it up from there," Olsen says. 

"In this case the shape was there from the beginning because I had that name."

Olsen, who studied at the University of Canterbury, wanted to bring some of Te Papa's European collections to light. She says fashion in particular often allows visitors to connect with history on a personal level - you look at a dress and know that a real person once wore it. 

This vibrant green would have been produced by dying threads twice - once with blue and once with yellow.
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

This vibrant green would have been produced by dying threads twice - once with blue and once with yellow.

That makes it easier to draw comparisons between the society that created these gorgeous, labour-intensive dresses and the one we live in today. 

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"When you look at some of the themes of the exhibition, they are as contemporary now as they were in the past. Issues around trade, [the cultural mix that happened as] Europe was importing from Asia, issues around changes in religion," she says. 

The cream Robe à l'Anglaise (dated 1775-85) on display in Splendour demonstrates this, Olsen says. It was made from silk made in London by French Protestants who had escaped the strict Catholic regime in force at the time. 

Te Papa conservator Anne Peranteau in the museum's Tory St lab.
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

Te Papa conservator Anne Peranteau in the museum's Tory St lab.

It makes Olsen consider "the issue of refugees, and the value they can bring to a country - coming in from another land, and bringing their skills and actually enhancing the practise at the time."

"London seriously benefited from the silk weavers and silversmiths from Paris," she says. 

That those weavers' work survives over 200 years later is testament to its quality. Peranteau, who has worked with Te Papa for eight years, says her work is about respecting the story of each garment. 

This dress, dating from about 1775, is made of Spitalfields silk.
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This dress, dating from about 1775, is made of Spitalfields silk.

She showed me a gown that was nearly included in Splendour, but isn't in such perfect condition as the two that made the cut. 

Peranteau can tell a lot about a garment's history just by sight. The rich brown brocade gown she showed me had been dated to the 1740s based on its fabric, but she thought it had more than likely been reworked since then. 

"As it exists in its current form it's probably a bit later, because in the earlier part of the 18th century the gowns were looser at the back - they were called sack back gowns - and then later they were worked into more fitted bodices," she says. 

The value of the fabrics, as well as the increasingly quick pace of trends, led to a lively secondhand market for re-cut dresses, Peranteau says. She points to where the dress's sleeves have been altered. While it would have initially belonged to a very wealthy woman, the changes suggest it had a second life with someone of lesser means. 

One resource that's proved invaluable to Peranteau is an album of fabric samples on loan from London's Victoria and Albert Museum. It was put together by an 18th century woman who kept samples and prices of every fabric she purchased, along with how much she needed for each sort of dress. 

"She did this for decades, so we can see that how much fabric was required for a dress was reduced, because of the style, and we can look at the detail in the fabric," Peranteau says. 

The fabrics themselves are fascinating - Peranteau says the weaver would have spent a month setting up a loom for the brocade we looked at. But the point of her work is to get as much as she can out of the materials to support the curators. 

"We'll be looking at the details of the garment and hopefully they dovetail so it supports what they're thinking."

European Splendour 1500-1800 runs at Te Papa until the end of February 2017. 

 - Stuff

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