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Collection Conservation

Textile conservation


Chiarina’s costume after 450 hours of conservation treatment

Detail of the ruffled skirt of 'Costume for Chiarina (Lubov Tchernicheva)'

Detail of the ruffled skirt of 'Costume for Chiarina (Lubov Tchernicheva)'

From 5 September until 6 December 1998 at the Gallery a major exhibition will feature more than 70 splendid costumes, and as many designs, created for the legendary company Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev and its successor Colonel W de Basil’s Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. The costume designed by Leon Bakst for Chiarina from the ballet Carnaval will be among a number of costumes displayed for the first time.

Until this year Chiarina’s costume had remained in storage since its acquisition by the Gallery at Sotheby’s auction in London in 1973 contained in a basket full of Ballets Russes costumes, several of which were shown in the Gallery’s very popular exhibition From Studio to Stage in 1990. Internal inscriptions indicate that the costume was intended for the principal dancer Lubov Tchernicheva, who was a member of the Diaghilev company between 1911 and 1929, and later danced with de Basil’s troupe from 1932 until 1952.

When the fragile, soiled costume was brought to the Gallery’s Conservation Department for treatment, the great size of the task was realised, and it was decided to start work on this costume well in advance of the exhibition.

'Costume for Chiarina (Lubov Tchernicheva)' before conservation, laid out in storage drawer

'Costume for Chiarina (Lubov Tchernicheva)' before conservation, laid out in storage drawer

The extant costume consists of a peplumed bodice and ruffled skirt. Fabric behind the tassels of the skirt indicate a previous skirt which could have been from an earlier production.

The boned acetate bodice has ruffled sleeves with deep gathered lace cuffs. The low wide neckline is bordered with blue and cream silk crepe and has a frill of cream acetate. Although the bodice was structurally stable, alterations at the seams had worn and had been darned. The fabric and lace had numerous tears and holes; the horn boning was broken and distorted. The bodice was extremely discoloured and the underarm sections smelt of perspiration; there were also deposits of pink make-up.

The skirt has a cotton base with seven silk taffeta ruffles. Four of the ruffles have cream cotton tassels attached at intervals. During inspection, many of the tassels were found to have fragments of a paler blue silk sewn behind them – probably remnants of an earlier skirt. The ruffles of the skirt were shredded and had been repaired by crude darning. There were various stains on the ruffles.

After discussions with the curator it was decided to respect the integrity of the shape of the costume by returning the bodice to its original seams and by backing the ruffles of the skirt.

Leon Bakst 'Costume for Chiarina (Lubov Tchernicheva)' from Carnaval, 1930s, acetate bodice with silk crepe, artificial flowers, silk and rayon lace cuffs, cotton skirt with silk taffeta ruffles, National Gallery of Australia

Leon Bakst 'Costume for Chiarina (Lubov Tchernicheva)' from Carnaval, 1930s, acetate bodice with silk crepe, artificial flowers, silk and rayon lace cuffs, cotton skirt with silk taffeta ruffles, National Gallery of Australia

Initially all components were vacuumed inside and out to remove loose dirt. Each ruffle was removed from the skirt so these could be flattened and then supported. To allow easy replacement after treatment, tailor tacks of varying colours were sewn to the ruffles and tassels as well as on corresponding locations on the skirt. The ruffles and tassels were carefully removed by cutting each stitch to avoid tearing the fragile silk, and all the darning threads were removed. The skirt without its ruffles was sponge cleaned avoiding the water soluble ink inscriptions. The ruffles were sprayed with water to wash the fabric and to flatten creases, and, whilst wet, the loose threads were aligned.

Once dry a backing of silk gauze coated with adhesive was ironed to the ruffles, and patches of silk fabric were inserted behind large losses. Badly damaged areas were faced with the same silk. The laborious task of regathering and sewing the ruffles onto the skirt was then carried out. To prevent further weakening of the fibres, the new sewing threads were sewn through original stitch holes. The tassels were individually washed and resewn to the textile.

The first step in conserving the bodice involved the removal of all the darning threads.The bodice was then washed and dry cleaned by sponging. Care was taken to avoid the areas of soluble ink inscription and the pink make-up. The former shape of the bodice was restored by returning the front seams to their original state and flattening and repairing the boning. Further stability was gained by patching holes greater than 4mm and lining the sleeves with silk.

The wonderful result of 450 hours’ of conservation has given the costume for Chiarina a new lease of life. It now has the freshness of Bakst’s original design – his drawing for Chiarina’s costume, on loan from the Stage Theatre and Music Museum, St Petersburg, will be displayed alongside the costume in the forthcoming exhibition.

Sarah Clayton

This article was first published in artonview 49 summer 1997–98