Worn Through is happy to present this guest post from Eleni Holloway. Eleni Holloway is an assistant curator with the Australian War Memorial. She specialises in textiles, reconstruction, handicrafts, fashion and decorative arts, and is currently completing a Master of Studies in Museums and Art History.
Since the inception of the public museum and gallery, the authentic object has offered the viewer the promise of a unique experience and an encounter with the ‘real thing’. In earlier times the use of replicas in exhibitions threatened the authority of the museum, by undermining the perceived authenticity of its collections. More recently, however, large-scale or national museums have been willing to engage with reconstruction. The function of replicas has been revisited by researchers, academics and curators alike, eager to learn about construction, movement on the body and expand knowledge and interpretation.
During the major centenary redevelopment at the Australian War Memorial, the need for a replica presented itself in the form of a nurse’s ward dress from the First World War (1914-1918). The original dress had seen long-term display in the Memorial’s galleries and is in a very fragile state. The conservation requirements to preserve outweighed the need to display, and the dress was retired from exhibition. By no longer displaying the dress, the museum has ensured that it will be preserved for posterity and ongoing study, as a rare example of an AANS dress. There are few other surviving examples in any museums in Australia.
This dress was worn by nurse Rosalie Agnes Lummer during her service with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). The AANS was a small, professional unit of nurses drawn from Australia’s middle and upper classes. The women who volunteered with the AANS were given a small allowance to purchase uniforms from tailors, or to make their own if they were confident with a sewing machine. As a key uniform item to be worn by nurses in wards, the official instructions described it simply as ‘zephyr dresses, grey’. These facts now explain for the enormous variety of styles and finishes, as documented in period photographs. The number of buttons, colour, bodice construction, and thickness and placement of gathers differ from nurse to nurse.
The ward dress, like the bright scarlet cape and linen veil, reinforced the authority and professionalism of the nursing service. Australian nurses during the Boer War (1899-1902) wore dresses of a similar nature; the style and design of the ward dress had undergone little change since the turn of the century. The cinched waist, high neck, long sleeves and long skirt mirrored the authoritative clothing worn by nuns, and respectable women during the late-Victorian and Edwardian period.
Rather than buying an off-the-shelf replica, I worked closely with our textile conservation department to reconstruct a dress as accurately as possible by using the original dress as the pattern and blue print. While there are many methods used in reconstruction, our conservation department recommended the ingenious and collection-safe process of tracing the components on a sheet of clear Mylar, measuring and adjusting as we made progress.
The dress was laid out flat and we traced it in sections to reverse-engineer a sewing pattern that I would later use. We divided the sections into the bodice front and back, left sleeve, right sleeve, cuffs, collar, waistband, and skirt front and back. Once traced, we added a seam allowance to the Mylar, and added as much information as possible, by marking button holes, darts, seams, and the start and end of gathers. The grain of the fabric guided our measurements of the gathers at the shoulders and waist. The bodice at first looked as though it was tapered to the waist, although a closer inspection showed that it was straight-cut and gathered.
From this master plan, we used tissue paper and traced the pieces, adding instructions as we went, and always referring to the original dress for information. The pattern was tested in calico first, and minor changes were made. Unfortunately I was unable to source grey zephyr cotton, so we used a poly-cotton blend instead. Despite the setback of not being able to source a more accurate fabric, the process of reconstruction revealed important hidden details which had gone unseen and unnoticed for decades.
These insights revealed important aspects into the life of a nurse, and of Lummer’s personal experience. For instance, the left and right sleeves weren’t identical as one would expect. The right sleeve being four centremetres wider than the left, had had a major repair which reduced its width. Likely hand stitched and repaired by nurse Lummer to prolong its life, the dress was constructed by a combination of machine and hand stitching in grey and white cotton thread. The dress shows signs of heavy use, especially around the arms, which are now discoloured.
Through a careful reconstruction of Lummer’s ward dress, we discovered many clues which reinforced that it is not a fine example of tailoring techniques, nor is it a fine garment in its own right. The ward dress was worn during periods of heavy work, in military hospitals and casualty operating theatres. As nurses had few opportunities to replace their uniforms, hand repairs prolonged the life of a garment, saving money and time. Lummer’s careful repair and refusal to use a different fabric for the repair demonstrates the pride in her uniform and appearance, thereby maintaining the authority of the nursing service even in the dire circumstances that some nurses found themselves in.
The replica dress was a success by all accounts, and was mounted for long-term display in 2014, underneath an original starched apron, collar and cuffs which belonged to another nurse who served in the war, Sister Muriel Burberry. With the replica on display, the original ward dress is available for access and further research.
The question of labelling reconstructions is an area of further debate for museums. Although the exhibition label does not make reference to the replicated ward dress, the original pieces which sit on top of it are clearly the focus. Perhaps a label which highlighted the replica may distract viewers, by causing them to wonder about the authenticity of the other items on display. Here, the overall impression of the nurse figure is what was considered important by the curators. The information, if sought, would be freely divulged.
This reconstruction project was valuable in that it caused us to look very closely at a garment, and discover its hidden secrets. Primary source investigation of this type can lead to insights into the social, cultural and personal world of the wearer.
I would love to hear from curators or conservators about other reconstruction methods: how did you approach it, and what process did you use? How would you have done it differently, and what did you learn?
All photos courtesy of Eleni Holloway