One of the most exciting days in my tenure at Blithewold was the day Bessie Van Wickle McKee’s collection of fine gowns returned permanently to Blithewold from Boston where they had been in safe keeping at the headquarters of the Colonial Dames of America. There was much work to be done – we had each gown professionally assessed, and then it was stored in a dedicated storage room on the 3rd floor of the Mansion. Each gown was wrapped and supported carefully in acid-free tissue and stored in its own archival box. Each box was then marked with an accession number, a brief description including date and designer, and a photograph. The room is darkened with shades, and all windows protected with UV filters.
Bessie Van Wickle’s 1882 Traveling Outfit
The Collection Committee then began the process of deciding how the gowns should be restored and exhibited. This is a very important collection – the gowns are all of the highest quality in terms of design, workmanship, and materials used. We chose ConText Inc., a conservation and restoration company in Rochester, Massachusetts, to undertake the work of repairing and stabilizing the collection so that the costumes could be shared with the public in special exhibits. The first such exhibit ( in the new costume display space on the 2nd floor of the Mansion ) is this season’s “A Wedding to Remember” presenting the 1882 wedding gown of Bessie Van Wickle along with other pieces from her trousseau – a traveling suit, and an afternoon dress.
Bessie Van Wickle’s Wedding Gown 1882
The conservation work was funded by generous contributions from Blithewold members. Once each gown was restored, full reports of the work undertaken (with before-and-after photographs) were included in the box, along with a list of donors who contributed to the restoration of that particular article of clothing.
We are now at the stage where we will have to be creative in raising funds to pay for the next 2 dresses that need to be restored. The next exhibit will highlight Bessie’s fondness for the opera, and central to the exhibit will be her Opera Coat, made in 1912 by Fox of New York, her favorite designer. The fabric is orange silk velvet, with black velvet collar and cuffs, decorative metallic bouclé fabric panels at shoulders and sleeves, and metallic tassel details. The coat is in good condition overall, but needs surface cleaning and re-stitching in many areas. Special supports must be constructed to make the coat stable enough for display.
We also hope to show another gown from 1912 (and also from Fox of New York) – a stunning evening dress of green and gold metallic velvet fabric with ivory cotton lace panels, ivory silk organza, and embroidered net. It has two beaded butterfly-shaped appliqués at the center front and center back of the bodice, and pleated bands of silk net are stitched around the neckline and shoulder edges. Much work will be needed to conserve the dress so that it may be mounted for exhibition.
Evening dress of green and gold metallic velvet fabric
Bessie Van Wickle’s Opera Coat
Would you consider helping us fund this important work? Contributions in any amount would be gratefully accepted – and of course, your donation would be tax deductible. You can send your check to the Blithewold Costume Conservation Fund. If you would like to come and see the collection, and hear more about our plans, you can make an appointment. Once you see the great possibilities, I feel sure you would agree that our preservation project is worthy of your support. You can call me, Margaret Whitehead, at 253-2707 extension 22, or email me at [email protected] for more information.