Without getting too overwhelmed with puns, this costume worn by Scotty Beckett in Listen, Darling is, well, darling. The 1938 MGM musical brings Scotty together with Judy Garland and Freddie Bartholomew as siblings Billie, Pinkie and Buzz (respectively) Wingate who plot to kidnap their mother (played by Mary Astor) to prevent her from marrying the wrong man.
The costume is worn towards the end of the film when Pinkie soothes the tearful Billie through a thunderstorm by singing “Ten Pins in the Sky.” A clip can be seen here:
Conserving this piece was fairly straightforward only requiring some reversal of post-production modifications, a clean and the creation of a mount. The costume is created from brown felt and decorated with blue, red and yellow embroidered trim. There is substantial global loss of pigment which is likely a combination of UV damage and the instability of vegetable-based dyes. Sometime after 1938, the costume was reused and numerous multi-colored beads were added along the shoulders and lateral aspects of the legs. Since these were not organic to the original design, it was opted to carefully document their presence but to remove them. The garment was then wet cleaned, blocked to dry and steamed to form.
To create the mount, I requested an invisible look. This was achieved by using a Dorfman ethafoam mannikin that was cut away at the torso and forearms and then covered with a matching fabric. An unanticipated but delightful outcome of this choice was that it allows the viewer an unobstructed view of the MGM wardrobe label.
And remember, “when the thunder starts to thunder, don’t go out and cry…they’re playing ten pins in the sky.”
I sent a costume piece off a week ago and wanted to share the preliminary findings. When the conservator’s reaction started with a sigh and was followed by “she’ll always look like a sick little girl” I knew things were bad.
The blouse was worn by Judy Garland during the “When You Wore a Tulip (And I Wore a Big Red Rose)” number in For Me and My Gal (MGM, 1942). Portraits of Garland in the Kalloch-designed ensemble were used extensively to promote the film as well as in numerous other contexts (for example in a 1945 advertising campaign for General Electric).
The history of the piece is largely unknown to me. What I do know is that it, like most other pieces, left MGM in 1970 and was later auctioned by Sothebys in the 1980s. Since that time, the story is muddled but what is known is that the matching skirt was lost and it spent the greater part of two decades in a barn.
The signs of improper storage are pretty apparent. For one, direct, unfiltered UV light has caused significant fading along the front of the garment (the backside remains relatively bright). This heat has literally cooked the fibers causing significant damage and fraying, particularly at the shoulders. Congruent with its barnyard-storage, there is also evidence that an animal attempted to eat the lining of the peplum.
Clearly, the amount and particularly type of damage makes “restoring” this piece to its original condition impossible. That being said, the deterioration and damage, while saddening and frankly appalling, is part of the story. It also reminds us that these relics of the past will not last forever particularly if allowed (or in this case encouraged) to rot.
The conservator has a big job ahead of her which will involve:
- Removing the collar and red rick-a-rack; wash and restitch.
- Stitch bottom button again.
- Stitch lining in places (including proper right shoulder pad) again.
- Dye sheer fabric and silk filament thread soft green color.
- Using soft green sheer fabric, put as an underlay in the fourteen areas in the show fabric. Using silk filament thread, stitch in place.
- Creat a mount for object using 600D Fosshape. The shape will recreate the look of the photo where the top of the bodice sleeves stick up. Arms will be made of either of fabric stuffed with polyester fill (that does not contain resin) or Fosshape.
- Create an interior structure for mounted object in traveling box.
This process will take some time but I will post information as it is received.
Conservation treatment has begun on Judy Garland’s For Me and My Gal bodice. The costume has significant damage due to a combination of general age, improper storage and, mainly, prolonged UV exposure. For more information, please see my earlier blog.
The collar was then wet cleaned using both ionic and nonionic detergents as well as a solvent bath. These different processes are used to reduce the various acidic, water soluble (e.g. sweat, starch) and/or water insoluble (e.g. grease) chemicals that may be contaminating the object.
In the end, I am very pleased with the conservator’s progress and am excited to move forward. Stay tuned for further updates!
Of course, the ruby slippers are one of the most identifiable film objects in existence. So much has been written about their history and how they continue to fascinate fans and collectors a like. Most recently, the Profiles in History auction rehashed some of this interest with their vast press campaign to promote their sale of the ruby slippers. The photos released by the auction house show the slippers as a deep, beautiful red—close to what one remembers when recalling the film.
However, many other recent images of the slippers show a markedly different perspective. The sequins are, in fact, not a bold red but faded to a near-pink with what appears to be a “flaking” of the metallic finish. This appearance is not limited to the pair sold by Profiles. For instance, the Smithsonian recently reported that the slippers will be displayed beneath red lighting to enhance the color.
Admittedly, one would expect the nearly 75-year-old pair to show signs of age but, having a science background and immense curiosity, I wanted to know more about how the sequins have aged. It’s also an interesting point of contention among ruby slipper replicators whether the sequins were translucent or metallic. Some argue that the sequins were simply gelatin dyed to a deep red. Others believe that there was some combination of metallic finish and dye that gave the ruby slippers their finish with the metallic component flaking off over the decades. The Smithsonian has tested the sequins to determine their composition to be gelatin but has not publicly remarked as to whether or not they have a metallic finish.
To perform my little experiment, I hunted down 5mm, deep red, gelatin sequins that were made in the 1930’s in Belgium. The catch-all claim to describe the process of aging is “oxidation.” So, I simply prepared a solution of .12% household bleach—a powerful oxidant—in deionized water and submerged these gelatin sequins in standardized time intervals.
Before I extrapolate, the limitations I encountered were that the original ruby slipper sequins are not being submerged as I have in this test. Also, oxidation alone does not describe all of the potential factors that may have impacted the slippers such as UV light damage, mold, humidity, acidity, etc. Nonetheless, it does demonstrate a gelatin base, layer of silver and then a red dye. Thus, it is likely not the metallic finish flaking off but rather fading to the red dye allowing a glimpse of the silver beneath. This is seen in the image above where, over the time intervals, the red dye fades away, revealing a silver, and then a translucent gelatin base.
It’s sad to think of what “could happen” to the slippers as they continue to age but a great deal of work is being undertaken by the Smithsonian to conserve these highly treasured pieces of history. The work can be appreciated in this magnificent video, The Secret Behind the Sparkle.