Anne Getts, UD graduate student in the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, helps restore the gown which was designed by Gilbert Adrian and worn by leading lady Norma Shearer in the 1938 MGM movie "Marie Antoinette."

A gown fit for a queen

Stunning gown from 1938 movie 'Marie Antoinette' restored


Editor’s Note: At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Anne Getts, graduate student in the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and 2011 Summer Frost Fellow, is helping to bring the sparkle back to a stunning gown from the 1938 MGM motion picture Marie Antoinette. In the LACMA lab with her are head textile conservator Catherine McLean, associate textile conservator Susan Schmalz, and Nicole Bloomfield, Andrew W. Mellow Fellow in Textiles. They are preparing the gown for an upcoming traveling exhibition. Getts shares her experiences below.

2:27 p.m., Sept. 6, 2011--The production of the 1938 MGM motion picture Marie Antoinette was extravagant, with a multi-million-dollar budget and 2,500 costumes. More than 50 women were hired to produce the hand-embroidered and sequined gowns. The understructures for the gowns -- some more than 6 feet wide -- were made in the studio’s machine shop, and many of the fabrics used to create the costumes were commissioned and woven in Lyon, France.

The dress is quite stunning. Designed by Gilbert Adrian, it combines aspects of late 18th-century fashion with 1930s aesthetics. While Adrian looked to the style of French courtly dressing during the time of Marie Antoinette for inspiration, the costumes are not historically accurate: the film’s leading lady, Norma Shearer, wears her evening gowns off the shoulders, which was not acceptable in the 18th-century French court. 

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I spent the bulk of my time the first month of the summer performing a thorough examination of the skirt, photographing and creating condition diagrams, as well as writing a detailed condition report and treatment proposal. There is more to the skirt than first meets the eye; it actually consists of three main layers: the skirt itself, a triple petticoat, and a cloth-covered wire understructure. The petticoats and wire understructure help support and shape the more than six-foot-wide skirts. 

After comprehensive examination of the skirt’s condition, a treatment proposal was formulated and is currently in progress to stabilize the damaged areas. I have begun to stabilize the multitude of splits and tears in the silver lamé swags adorning the skirt using silk crepeline patches and couching stitches with hair silk. To date, I have spent approximately 50 hours stitching. Once this is complete, I will focus on stabilizing the other fragile components of the dress, such as the sequined rosettes; it is estimated that another 30–40 hours of interventive treatment remain for the skirt alone.

This does not include finding and customizing a mannequin, as well as creating an understructure that will not only support the large skirt while on display, but also during travel.

The chance to focus on a single project for the summer is a rare opportunity, allowing me to really spend time getting to know the piece. It has also opened up new avenues of learning, including the construction, materials, design and art historical information -- of both historical costume and Hollywood costume design. Working on the dress is also providing me with a wonderful chance to practice and hone my costume conservation skills.

Article by Anne Getts

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