Conference Papers

The Australian Dress Register

Children’s ‘gum blossom’ fancy dress costume worn at the Public School Children’s Festival, part of the Sesquicentenary of European settlement of Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1938. Gift of Pat Dale. Collection: Powerhouse Museum Sydney. Photo: Chris Brothers

What is the Australian Dress Register?

The Australian Dress Register is a collaborative online database project being developed by the Powerhouse Museum to document significant and well provenanced pieces of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing.

It will enable people from regional,city and international locations to feature historical garments from their private and public dress collections on an online register, which we hope to launch in September 2010.

At this stage, the focus is on examples of dress dating up to 1945 that relate to New South Wales. This is only the initial phase of the project however, and we certainly plan to develop it into a broader ongoing program. Later phases will include significant clothing relating to the whole of Australia and garments dated later than 1945.

How did the ADR project come about?

The project developed for a number of reasons but one of the primary driving forces was costume and dress curator at the Powerhouse, Lindie Ward, who after many years working within the Museum and as a freelance curator had come across some very fine examples of dress in regional and private collections that were of great significance. They were yet to be documented and were therefore unknown in the wider community. It seemed this material should be documented somewhere but at the same time should physically remain in the locality to which it is relevant. Not only would this information be important to the local area, but it would be of great interest and relevance to museums and to the community at large. So as a result, we gathered together a team including curatorial, conservation, collection management, regional services and editorial staff, along with our Museum web services, to devise a format for the Australian Dress Register.

What does the project aim to achieve?

Through this project we hope to assist with the documentation of provenanced and significant men’s, women’s and children’s dress and assist museums and private collectors to research and care for their dress collections. We have aimed to create a format in which the documentation is thorough, standardised and will be easily searchable. At the same time, we would also like to encourage and support better care and management of both public and private collections and hope to do this by the continuing provision of resources, workshops and advice.

We also hope that the register will assist to stimulate an improved understanding of dress in its wider historical context, so we can learn not just about the physical objects themselves, but that the whole historical context of dress can be brought to life.

Also, after consulting with a number of different museums, scholars and organisations, a feature we thought would be of great benefit is an evolving forum for communication and discussion regarding dress. We plan to facilitate this in the form of a blog and bulletin board.

With these aims in mind, regional museums, collections and private individuals have already started to enter some of their significant objects on the register, so it is not just the collections of larger city museums that will be revealed, but there will be a true representation of what exists across the state. At this stage there is a limit of five entries or outfits per individual or organisation that can be visible on the site, but these five can be regularly changed. This is for the same reason why we have initially limited the register to garments relating only to New South Wales and pre 1945 – so we can ensure that resources for the delivery of the program are not overwhelmed. In time, the number of garments is also something that may change. We certainly see the register as an international project as the garments can come from any collection in the world, but they just need to be relevant initially to New South Wales or, as the project expands, to Australia.

Why should individuals and organisations participate?

And what benefits are there that can result from the project? For the individuals and organisations that participate, there is the chance to:

  • gain assistance to discover and recognise the significance of their collections
  • access training and skills development in the care and documentation of dress and museum best practice
  • provide corroborating support for grant and funding applications.

In turn, the information and accessibility of garments and their stories, provide significant benefits to a broad range of audience for non-commercial education purposes. The potential audience includes students and teachers from various disciplines, museums and local communities, family and regional historians, the theatre and film industry, designers, clothing and textile manufacturers, shoe makers, milliners, embroiderers, lace makers, artists and academics.

As you can see, this project is about access. About virtual access to examples of dress, about access to resources and support for participants and about creating a network of communication and discussion.

What is the current status of the website and what can be seen at the moment?

The website is a work in progress and before the launch the public interface still needs to be built, more resources and help notes made available and more entries added.

In terms of what is actually visible or available on the web at the moment, there is an introduction page where you can log in, or apply for a log in, in order to create or modify one of your entries on the register. It is also on this page where a growing number of resources such as help notes and videos are located. These resources are available for use to anyone and not just those who have a log in or garment on the register

The online form

In terms of the format and the content of the online form, the information we are hoping to gather about the garments include:

  • photographs – eg images of the garment, manufacturing labels, the original and subsequent owners wearing the object,
  • object details and description
  • trimmings and decorations,
  • gender,
  • fibre and weave of the fabrics used,
  • manufacturing details,
  • construction details such as the cut, fastenings or if there is any stiffening, lining or padding,
  • measurements,
  • history and provenance,
  • dress themes,
  • additional supporting material – e.g. receipts for the fabric or ribbons, correspondence with the seamstress who made the garment, newspaper clippings about the family or related event and exhibition views while it is on display,
  • condition – poor condition of a garment is certainly not a reason to exclude it from the register, although it may make it difficult to take good photographs of the object. The register is a great way of providing access to a garment which may be rarely viewed due to its fragility and condition. In the Photography video and information sheet, we show how to take a photo of a garment on a slope backed board if it is too fragile to go on a mannequin.
  • statement of significance – Inclusion on the register is determined by the significance of the garment. Generally when there is information on the provenance of a garment and a range of associated material (photographs, stories etc) it will ensure an interesting entry. We are looking to include garments that are not necessarily the most valuable in a collection, in terms of their monetary value, but those that have a story to tell and add to our knowledge and understanding of both the study of dress and social history.

Resources

As mentioned, one of the main aims of the register is to support better care and management of collections, and one of the ways in which we hope to do this is by the provision of resources and support. These come in different forms, such as help notes, regional coordinators and workshops.

A series of help notes will be available to assist with various aspects of object documentation, storage, conservation and the on-line form. A number of these are currently available and can be accessed on the initial log in page. Our intention is for them to be readily available to anyone, so you do not have to have a login or a garment on the register in order to access the information. There will also be links for these help notes alongside the relevant sections within the on-line form.

Any of these help notes can also be printed off to keep as a hard copy to use when cataloguing other objects in a collection, not just the examples of dress chosen to put on the register – so they can assist with things such as assessing condition, photography of an object and writing a statement of significance.

There will also be a number of videos to help people dress a mannequin, take measurements, store garments and photograph black and white garments. We discovered that it is easier to show people some things rather than to try and explain them in a document. Again, these can be found under the ‘Resources’ link on the introduction page.

Another valuable resource that will be useful to assist and support people, are the regional co-ordinators that we have trained. They are someone in the local area or region who people can call for assistance, or go and see, and who will also be conducting workshops.

Along with the coordinators, the Powerhouse Museum will also be conducting regular workshops in different regions to assist people, and will tailor and focus the workshops on any area of documentation or collection care that people feel that they want or need the most in relation to the register.

Challenges

As with any project, the Australian Dress Register certainly has not been without its issues and challenges. One of our main concerns when developing the register has been how to set up the form so that it is appropriate for all different types of entries, whether it is an entire outfit or suit with several parts, or a single garment such as a dress.

Also when developing the form, we debated about the balance between capturing as much information as possible about a garment, while at the same time not making it so long that it is just too daunting to complete. While we certainly acknowledge that it is still reasonably long (there are sixteen sections), not all the fields will be relevant to all entries and therefore will not need to be completed. For example, if a garment does not have much decoration or trimming, then obviously very little needs to be included in the decorations and trimmings section.

We have included all these sixteen sections so that the questions and topics can act like a trigger for people to think about garments from a range of perspectives. While provenance is always a wonderful thing to support the documentation of any object, it is unfortunately not always available. By having all these sections and asking detailed questions, stories, information and hopefully significance can be gleaned from a garment, even by just looking at some of its physical attributes. For example, if a bodice shows evidence of being let out then perhaps more than one person wore it, or the wearer became pregnant and combined with other sources of information such as photos, newspaper articles, social pages, we can piece together a better picture of its possible history. What we gain from asking all these questions is not just knowledge of the physical qualities of each garment, but we are able to build up a narrative from what each example can tell us about the wearer, their family, the maker, the social class and place of purchase.

Another challenge we were aware of was although it is an on-line computer based resource, we knew we could not presume that everyone wishing to submit an entry on the register would have regular access to a computer or would necessarily feel familiar and comfortable using one. We wanted to devise a system that could ensure that all the information and resources would be as equally accessible to those people who have computers and are comfortable using them, as to those who are not. In order to achieve this, information packs can be mailed out, containing hard copies of all the help notes and blank forms, which can then be filled in and posted to us or a co-ordinator, along with any copies of any additional material, for data entry. As previously mentioned, people can also print off the help notes and blank forms from the ‘Resources’ link on the website.

The physical security of the garments placed on the register is also something we have been conscious of and finding the balance between access and security. While the whole premise of the project is about gaining access to information and images of the garments, physical access is not necessarily what we are also trying to encourage. Finding this balance between object security, access to information and physical access to the garment has been quite tricky. On the one hand, for some historical societies or museums they may hope that the presence of their objects on the register will increase their exposure and therefore visitor numbers. On the other hand however, for some private individuals and other organisations, this is not necessarily the case and it is not something that they want at all.

For this reason, participants can decide for themselves with the option to indicate if the garments are on display or can be physically accessed. Private individuals are not asked to reveal their name or address and museums and historical societies are also given this option too.

The register is a wonderful way of providing access to a garment which may be rarely seen by the public due to its fragility, the remoteness of a museum or because it is held in a private collection. But this project is not just about dress. Good documentation tells us about our history, about who we are and where we live. We hope that it will reveal and share those stories that might otherwise remain in the back cupboards and in cardboard boxes and never see the light of day.

By Sarah Pointon, Assistant Registrar at the Powerhouse Museum

For more details see: www.powerhousemuseum.com/dressregister