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"I'm going to do my favorite trick, everyone," Sarah Scaturro announces to the conservators working quietly in the Costume Institute's lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She crosses the room, flicks a switch, and the clean, white light filling the room downgrades to a dark, warm cast.
In Scaturro's line of work, low lighting simultaneously keeps fabrics safe from the damaging effects of bright light and visually minimizes the imperfections they have accrued over time. "It's amazing what you can get by with gallery lights and a three foot touch distance," she says with a smile.
She switches the lights back to their clinical setting, illuminating the lab's four ballgown-sized work tables. It's like the progression from a candle-lit bar to an unvarnished late night pizza joint, in all its truth-telling, fluorescent horror.
Scaturro is the head conservator at the Costume Institute, the fashion-focused department of the Met that has mounted blockbuster shows like "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" and "China: Through the Looking Glass," and that derives much of its funding from the annual Met Gala spearheaded by Anna Wintour. Any piece that goes on display has gotten the seal of approval from Scaturro's team.
The conservators' work begins at the start of an exhibit's planning process. When Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute's head curator, proposes a piece from the Met's collection for a show, they'll have it pulled from storage and perform a condition assessment to gauge whether it's strong enough for exhibition, and beyond that, what additional treatment it might require. Strength, in this scenario, is a question of whether the garment can literally withstand being placed on a mannequin. Because clothing transforms from two dimensions to three, its structure is constantly unstable, Scaturro explains. That instability lends it an inherent weakness. Especially so when the piece in question might be decades old.
"In very rare cases, some things are just so fragile or so damaged that it would just take way too much work to get it into an exhibitable state," Scaturro says.
An abbreviated list of problems a fashion conservator might come across: champagne spilled down the front of an evening dress, hems ruined from traipsing through the mud, missing sleeves, detached waists, broken seams, disintegrating tulle, and, very commonly, yellow sweat stains. At one work station, Scaturro unveils a large necklace by Simon Costin, the set designer and collaborator of the late Alexander McQueen, that she had recently degreased. The piece has been decaying, since Costin crafted it from turkey claws and rabbit skulls.
Generally speaking, conservators aim to prevent an object's future degradation — assessing and curtailing risk factors like light, heat, moisture, pests, and even other materials in its immediate environment — while mitigating present flaws that might detract from a viewer's appreciation of it. Unsightly pit stains, for instance, may not fully express a designer's artistic intention. Scaturro can conceal those marks by sewing a very sheer, soft fabric over the area using a fine needle and a single strand of silk.
While some institutions allow their fashion pieces to show more wear and tear in order to contextualize them as lived-in, historical items, the Met places a premium on making its objects look as beautiful and fresh as possible. But Scaturro's dainty approach to covering perspiration stains isn't purely a matter of aesthetics. Like doctors, conservators adhere to a code of ethics and take the "First, do no harm" premise seriously. Puncture marks from heavy-handed stitching can hurt the integrity of an object. In an ideal world, Scaturro says, everything her team does would be reversible.
The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, one of the country's major conservation organizations, lays out a number of rules in its code of ethics. That includes mandates to write detailed reports on an object’s examination, scientific investigation, and course of treatment; to create guidelines for the object’s preventative care and handling; and to avoid methods that might adversely affect the object or its future examination.
"A lot of time is spent preparing and thinking about treatment, rather than doing the treatment," says Denyse Montegut, a professor of conservation science and the chair of the Fashion and Textile Studies master's program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "We look back now at some treatments that people did with the best of intentions, and we find that it really sped up the deterioration of the object because of whatever materials were used."
To avoid being that guy, a conservator will look at a garment's issues on a chemical level and test potential treatments on bits of similar, non-historic fabric. The fashion conservation community is a small one, so those within it often consult one another, even across institutions, to solve research problems. That's true across mediums, too: to figure out how to remedy discolored spots, known as foxing, that had appeared on a pair of men's underwear, one of Scaturro's coworkers adapted research on how to remove them from paper.
Conservation itself is a relatively young field. The Conservation Center at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts is North America's oldest degree program in the field, and it was founded in 1960. In that light, you can start to see how mistakes might have happened in the past. Conservators in the early years weren't working with the same wealth of institutional knowledge and published studies that today's professionals have.
"Over time, we've seen that certain approaches have not worked," Montegut says.
Assuming that conservation techniques will only continue to improve in the future, it makes sense that Scaturro and her peers carry out their work with a high degree of fastidiousness and caution. The stakes are high when you're handling cultural property: how a conservator and curator choose to alter an object's appearance dictates how the viewer understands it. In a worst case scenario, that could amount to rewriting or misrepresenting history.
Over at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, textile conservator Susan Heald asks members of Native American communities for guidance before treating or mounting their garments, both historical and contemporary, for display. Body paint that has rubbed off on a piece is often fine to leave because it speaks to how the item was used, she says. But sometimes a pristine garment is the way to go. When preparing some seal gut parkas from Alaska's Yu'pik community for display, Heald's consultants suggested they just make her some new ones, since the pieces on hand had been damaged by insects.
"Some community members want us to have something fresh because it represents them better," Heald explains.
At the Met, Scaturro expresses a similar deference to the intentions of the designer. Sometimes she's able to interview the artist about his or her techniques and materials; such was the case for Simon Costin and his macabre jewelry. But often it's a matter of wading deep into historical research.
"Conservation relies on this mix of science, ethics, history, craftsmanship, artistic talent, and taste," Scaturro says. "We don’t want to act like we’re the designer."