Sometimes a dress enters our studio seemingly on its last breath. The ravages of time and display take their toll on fragile fabrics more so than any other type of artifact. Add in the questionable materials and construction of a vintage Hollywood costume and you’ve got a real mess on your hands. Such was the case with the 1860s-inspired silk dress worn by child star Shirley Temple in the 1935 film The Little Colonel.
Shirley Temple was born in 1928 in Santa Monica, California. She began acting at age 3 and became internationally recognized for her role in Bright Eyes, which was released in 1934. President Franklin D. Roosevelt coined her “Little Miss Miracle,” and her films helped to maintain American optimism during the Depression Era. The cult of Shirley Temple was so strong that in 1935 she was honored with the first Juvenile Oscar, and her foot and hand prints were immortalized in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
The Little Colonel is best known for the first interracial dance scene on screen, in which Shirley Temple as Little Lloyd tap-dances with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson on a staircase. In the scene in which Shirley Temple wears this dress she sings “Love’s Young Dream” while promenading around a parlor. While not quite a dance, she swings her hoop skirt and holds her arms behind her back throughout the song. When we viewed the footage on YouTube, it was evident that this choreography was already damaging the dress under the arms and on the flounces.
While the silk bonnet, cotton pantalets, and under dress were in good condition, the silk dress was crushed and shattering to the touch. This behavior was reminiscent of 19th-century weighted silks, suggesting that this material was already old when it was used in 1935. There were several prior repairs using adhesives, some of which appeared to be vintage and others we suspect were made at the time of the sale. Given these conditions, there was no alternative but to dismantle the dress and support the fragments onto new silk using an adhesive.
MTS conservator Morgan Carbone removed the three tiers of ruffles from the skirt. After cutting and removing all of the gathering threads, each tier was flattened out to their full length of over 9 feet. The same procedure was performed on the ruffled sleeves. Each skirt panel was then separated, which released large strips of seam allowance. The bodice was taken apart and its cotton lining was preserved. Finally, the silk components were pressed with a micro iron.
In Part II of this blog we will walk you through the conservation procedure, and show you the dress after reconstruction and mounting.