The Art of Style: Meet the Met’s Costume Institute Conservator Sarah Scaturro

By Emma Sandler

“Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style” showcases the French countess’ couture wardrobe through February 21 at the Metropolitan Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  De Ribes, 86,  remains a Parisian fashion icon and the exhibit features approximately 60 haute couture and ready-to-wear ensembles, primarily from de Ribes’ personal archive, from 1962 to the present.

Designers in the de Ribes exhibit include Giorgio Armani, Madame Gres, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Balmain, as well as de Ribes’ own design.

While preparing for the exhibit, I caught up with Sarah Scaturro, the head conservator at the Costume Institute. Scaturro, on the job since 2012, is responsible for 35,000 articles of clothing, regional costumes, and accessories for men, women, and children that trace fashions and culture across 500 years.

Scaturro is directly involved with the de Ribes show and three popular previous Costume Institute spring exhibitions – “Punk: Chaos to Couture” (2013); “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” (2014), “China: Through the Looking Glass,” which closed in September.  Scaturro shares her experiences here.

Inside the renovated conservation laboratory at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute/Anna Wintour Costume Center. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Inside the renovated conservation laboratory at The Costume Institute’s  Anna Wintour Costume Center at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Emma Sandler: How is costume conservation different from textile conservation?

Sarah Scaturro: I think what we do is very different from typical textile conservation because we work in the third-dimension where a lot of textiles, like rugs and carpets and tapestries, even archeological textiles oftentimes are displayed flat or store flat. They are meant to be flat…Garments are meant to be displayed on the human body. So the way that we approach things, and look at areas that we need to pay particular attention to, is always in relation to the human body

Q: What interests you about fashion conservation?

A: One of the fantastic things about being a conservator is you have to understand fashion history and art, and understand chemistry, but you also have to understand physics—like what is happening architecturally, how do we mitigate that, or make it better? Conservation is a relatively new field and it’s still professionalizing. My mentors actually entered the field without having to have a master’s degree, that’s how recent it is—that the generation before me could get into it through apprenticeship. And now you are required to have a master’s degree. So it’s evolving constantly.

Q: What are some of the ways a garment is conserved?

A: So, in particular, anything that is beaded or has any embellishments, the weight of the garment–say a beaded 20’s dress hanging on a mannequin–will put additional stress at the shoulders…We would potentially like to do a stabilizing underlay which you would attach to it, like a lining of some sort, to further spread the weight with the object…But [Charles James] garments are so sculptural and three-dimensional—they really are sculptures. A lot of the dresses are so heavy that you can’t have them mounted at the shoulders…Or for Dior skirts, or James skirts, it will really start pulling at the waist where you have these really heavy voluminous skirts attached just at one point.

And this is where mannequin dressing comes in key, because by having the proper body, not only in terms of the ideal body shape in order to show the dress – but also how it was intended to be worn.  By having the right size, by padding it out to the exact dimensions of the dress, you’re able to again spread that weight and have the whole weight of the dress rest completely on a supportive surface. So mannequin dressing, I think we excel at that.

Q: How does one handle or conserve certain fabrics?

A: Silk from the late 19th century to the early 20th century has a very strong tendency to “shatter” [or turn to powder] mainly due to the mordanting.There is a process that occurs during the dying stage that’s an addition of metallic salts to affix the dye molecule. The dye molecule doesn’t have a natural affinity for the silk, so you need to add these additional chemicals in order to get the molecule to attach to the fiber. This happens in dying today, it’s always happened. But particularly for this silk, they applied so much of it in order to get a special effect that over time the metallic salts, the mordants, will physically cut the polymer chain. And so when that starts happening you know the fibers are so brittle you can’t actually pierce it with a needle and run a thread through it. That would just cause more breaking so when you get to that point that’s when we investigate adhesive options.

Q: Adhesive options?

A: There’s a long history of using adhesives in conservation, there are many conservation-graded adhesives. But the typical way to do it would be to take a support fabric and lay it out, [then] you cast the adhesive onto it and then you cut the pattern shape that you need and affix it to the part of the garment that needs the additional support. And you can affix it either through heat or solvents typically. And then you might additionally sew a cover layer on top of it to protect the surface. But, as much as possible, we try to maintain original material and ensure that whatever we are doing is reversible.

Q: What about synthetic fabrics?

A: I think probably one of the most unique challenges about synthetics to date is the fact that so many of them are new and unproven in regards to their aging properties. So we know how wool ages, we know how silk ages, we don’t necessarily know how this most recent polyamide 3D printed dress ages because it’s so new. And that’s where we turn to a field of conservation called preventive-conservation, which aims at looking at proper storage and really trying to at least slow down or inhibit any decay or damage that can be caused by improper storage. So that involves controlling the relative humidity, the temperature, dust, lighting and vibrations. We also do very rigorous pest monitoring.

Q: When I came into the lab I couldn’t use a pen to write notes. What are some rules in the conservation lab?

A: Well, firstly there are no pens allowed inside the lab. If a pen were to go flying or accidentally misplaced it could leave a mark and pen ink is a lot harder to remove than pencil…Also when handling objects, preferably you have nitrile gloves or cotton gloves, but we prefer nitrile—it’s just a better barrier. Definitely take off any jewelry that can catch or any lanyards. Be careful that, when bending over, the lanyards or necklaces don’t fall forward. I actually had my ring designed and it’s purposefully designed so that it doesn’t catch on anything because this is a ring I don’t want to remove all the time because I don’t want to lose it. So I can actually handle objects without the fear of this catching or snagging on anything.

Q: How does the Met prepare for an exhibit like the “Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style?”

A: When [the garments] come into our lab we oversee unpacking and then we do a condition report on every object, which means we look at it inside and outside and we write down every flaw and we take photographs. And that’s just so we have a record to ensure that, if there’s a question during exhibition, like maybe we had a naughty public or something, we would have documentation of what it looked liked.

Q: How does the costume institute acquire garments?

A: We have an active acquisitions agenda—we get objects through donations, or purchases at auctions, etc. The objects that come in that we accept have to fulfill our collecting missions and also the mission of the museum. So we collect the very best examples of western high fashion. If somebody offers us something and we already have it—it takes a lot of resources to properly take care of something – we won’t take it [but] maybe we will. It depends. We are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so we like pretty things!

Charles James, “Clover Leaf” Evening Dress, ca. 1953 displayed in the renovated conservation laboratory at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute/Anna Wintour Costume Center. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Charles James, “Clover Leaf” Evening Dress, ca. 1953 displayed in the renovated conservation laboratory at The Costume Institute’s Anna Wintour Costume Center. (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Q: Do you ever perceive your role as a conservator as more than just that? Trying to determine what’s happening with a garment or what fabrics are being used is kind of like detective work.

A: I think a detective is a really great way of putting it, that we are trained to look and to question and to think and to analyze something – to deduce, you know from that information, and perhaps speculate on certain things. So we do assist the curators when they might have a question—we can often look at the object and say does the object tell us that answer, “yes” or “no?”…It’s a lot fun. We did a lot of analysis for the [Charles] James exhibition and we’ve done a lot for our upcoming exhibition, “manus x machina: fashion in an age of technology.”

Photo at top: Charles James, “Clover Leaf” Evening Dress, ca. 1953 displayed in the renovated conservation laboratory at The Costume Institute’s Anna Wintour Costume Center. (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)