2 Sep 20

A perfect fit: conservation of Porcelaine

Porcelaine is a beautiful example of French Haute Couture, whose design houses produce exquisite clothing that fit the wearers’ body like a glove. Porcelaine was designed by Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior in 1958, and was donated to the National Gallery of Victoria by Krystyna Campbell-Pretty, before its display in the 2017 exhibition The House of Dior. This dress was designed by Yves Saint Laurent for his first collection at Christian Dior, just a few months after the unexpected death of Dior in October 1957. Not long before his death, Dior had named his design assistant Saint Laurent as his successor, even though he was just 21 years old.

Vogue magazine once described Haute Couture fashion as “walking pieces of art”. Pieces such as Porcelaine are made for an individual client by a team of artisans and a single dress can take an incredible 100 to 400 hours to produce. The wearer of Porcelaine would have had several fittings at the House of Dior in Paris; at first with cotton toiles and later the silk faille itself. Each phase of the production of the dress would have been carried out with extreme attention to detail and finished with time consuming and hand-executed techniques. Not surprisingly Haute Couture comes at high expense, which places it well out of reach of all but a very few. Hidden behind the Dior label on the interior of Porcelaine’s bodice is a smaller label, bearing a small handwritten Couture number. This individual number recorded in the design house’s ledger books, is testament to the uniqueness and rarity of the dress.

Couture houses offer a lifetime alteration service at no extra cost to the owner. Despite this service, textile conservators often see alterations to couture garments which fall well below the high standard set by the couture house. As a textile conservator, this is rather intriguing; the imagination coming up with a raft of possibilities. Did the owner of the dress try it on before a special occasion, realise it no longer fit and then ask her maid to quickly alter the dress? Or did a young woman find the dress in her mother’s wardrobe and quickly alter it for a party? Returning the dress to the couture house for alteration is unlikely to be a speedy operation, especially if the owner did not reside in Paris. This phenomena has been occurring for hundreds of years and often the more precious or valued the dress, the more likely it is to be kept, treasured and altered as fashions or the wearer change.

The exterior of Porcelaine is in fabulous condition for her 60 years. However on close inspection, the inside of the dress’s corset had damage including rips, tears and losses of interior boning and construction stitches. She also showed alterations in style and fitting which affected the vision of Yves Saint Laurent’s design. This is perhaps partly because Porcelaine‘s metal boned corset does not leave room for any deviations in shape or weight. These alterations included changes to the dress’s side seams, waist pleating and centre-front neckline. The position of the shoulder straps had also been altered significantly, resulting in the waistlines of the dress and under corset being misaligned by about 5cm.

The conservation treatment aimed to stabilise damage from wear as well as return the dress to its original configuration. The dress was painstakingly studied for evidence of original hand and machine stitching under magnification. Information gathered was used to return the neckline to its beautiful original curve, shoulder straps to their full length and to position and to re-instate the smaller waist. All evidence of alterations was documented with photography and sketched diagrams and conservation stitches were re-established with meticulous hand-stitching which replicated machine stitching through original stitch holes.

This conservation work stabilised the dress for display on a mannequin, but also restored the beautiful lines of the dress, as designed by a 21-year-old Yves Saint Laurent.

Kate Douglas, Conservator of Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria