Museums & Tech: The Australian Dress Register

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As some may recall, I attended a special conference given by Seb Chan of the Powerhouse museum in September of 2009. While writing the post for that issue of Worn Through, I came across “The Australian Dress Register” that the Powerhouse was developing, which aims to “assist museums and private collectors to recognize and research their dress collections and support better care and management.” Fascinated by this idea, I kept it in the back of my head. Several months later, while trolling Twitter, I came to know Rebecca Evans, an assistant registrar for the Powerhouse and a new scholar in dress. After some discussion, I asked her if she might be able to give readers of WT some insider information on the Australian Dress Register – and she agreed!

I’m pleased to present this ‘sneak peak’ into the future of museum collections and their uses:

The Australian Dress Register is an inventive new project from the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney which aims to document provenanced historical dress. It is an online database that records information including:

  • measurements,
  • cut,
  • fabric,
  • photographs,
  • condition,
  • history and
  • provenance.

The project has two main aims;

  1. to document men, women and children’s costume and
  2. to assist museums and private collectors in recognizing the importance of dress in communicating history.

This is a comprehensive approach to recording and documenting some of the outstanding examples of costume in collections in the state of News South Wales. The project also provides many help notes focused on supporting the conservation of these examples of dress. We hope that the Dress Register will encourage collectors to consider their collections very broadly and preserve and share what they know about people, their dress and life in the past.

[Examples of the helpful information the project hopes to help provide is detailed instruction on this resources page, it also includes a series of instructional video how-to’s including storage and measuring techniques, such as this one below]

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I’ve been working on the project for about a year now and one of my favorite aspects of the register is its documentation of garment measurements. From a scientific point of view it is insightful to see how the shape of people’s bodies has changed over time, especially the circumference of women’s waists and peoples height. Silhouettes have dramatically altered over time, whether the width between shoulder seams, different lengths between the back and front of skirts or the length of a trouser –  this information is useful for researchers, practitioners and industry leaders. One of the garments on the register from the 1840s, worn by a woman who had had four children, has a waist circumference of only 60 cm! This suggests the wearer was tightly corseted.

Crimson silk outfit, Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Crimson silk outfit, 1874-1875, Historic Houses Trust of NSW

The project allows for the possibility to link similar examples of dress together, even though they are hundreds of kilometers away from one another. One of the best finds so far is linking a dress from the Powerhouse Museums’s collection and a skirt from the Tongarra Museum, both from the mid-1840s.  The skirts in both of these examples have virtually the same construction with five, bias-cut strips down the centre front and distinctive plaid silk taffeta fabrics. These examples were made on opposite sides of Australia, one in Tasmania and other in New South Wales, one probably by a professional and the other by the owner. This tells us a lot about dressmaking practices of this period as well as generally what was in fashion.

Detail of check skirt, The Tongarra Museum, Photography by Rebecca Evans

Detail of check skirt, c.1845, The Tongarra Museum, Photography by Rebecca Evans

Detail, day dress The Powerhouse Museum, Photography by Rebecca Evans,© Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

Detail, day dress, c.1845, The Powerhouse Museum. Photography by Rebecca Evans,© Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

The Australian Dress Register will be officially launched as a public website in mid-2010. We have much to work to do till then but I am sure that it will prove to be a fantastic resource. I hope that it will be useful to people in the museum industry, academics, designers, scientists, home sewers, students and many more. I am constantly surprised and awed by historic dress and its ability to reveal history and describe its wearer.

I want to extend a very warm thank you to Rebecca for this insightful post. Be sure to check out the resources page for a selection of instructional videos and pdfs available from the powerhouse/dress register. Are there other institutions out there working on similar initiatives or projects? How is your institution making use of new technology, making collections more useful and accessible to its patrons? As a museum visitor, do you have suggestions or ideas for ways museums might better promote/utilize/connect collections across borders? Comments welcome below!

* Day dress, c.1845, The Powerhouse Museum, Photography by Sue Stafford, © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

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