Preserving a small piece of Hollywood history–1934 Shirley Temple (part 1)

The dress Shirley Temple wore in 1934 film, The Little Colonel (photo by Therieault’s Auction House, 2015)

The most important thing I can do as a costume historian is to help preserve one of a kind, and historically important clothing. Sometimes this means storing your own Ann Lowe dress in archival packing materials in an archival box.  But sometimes it means helping a friend to care for amazing costumes purchased at auction that were worn by a movie star. This can mean everything from suggesting the right archival storage box, to connecting someone to a conservation service that can provide extensive restoration work to save a one of a kind garment.  As you can imagine, that doesn’t happen very often, but it is thrilling when it does.

Two summers ago, Shirley Temple’s carefully preserved collection of costumes, jewelry, dolls and keepsakes went up for auction  at Therialut’s auction house.  From Shirley’s earliest pictures, her mother kept each costume. This continued throughout Shirley’s career and after she passed away in 2014, the archive was delivered to her children and most of the items (to follow Shirley Temple Black’s wishes) including a very large doll collection, fan letters from historically important people, autograph books and dozens and dozens of costumes and personal clothing Shirley wore as a child went up for auction. I believe the proceeds were used for charitable purposes.

A closer look at the entire costume resold after the auction by another seller. Look carefully and condition differences on the bottom of the dress especially, become painfully clear.

I’ve been a nut for Shirley Temple doll clothes from the 1930s  for years, because they were handmade (mostly as piecework by women living near the New York City Ideal doll factory), are made of such fun (non synthetic!) materials (doll outfits made from silk, wool, oilcloth, leather and cotton? Um, yes, please!), and as copies of Shirley’s movie costumes, the number of different designs floating around even 80 years later seems endless.

I’ve collected a bunch of 1930s Ideal Toy Company doll clothes over the years, and that’s also how I met Tonya Bervaldi-Camaratta! Tonya’s the author of a fantastic collectors treasure trove about these dolls. She purchased several truly beautiful costumes at the auction (I still cannot imagine how exciting it would be to have the opportunity to collect things worn in movies!) and I gave her some pointers about the best way to store them. The costumes she purchased were in wonderful condition and I’m hoping that I’ll get the chance to visit at some point and see them in person. 🙂

Fragile enough to fall apart in your hands! This dress was made by the 20th Century Fox costume department with the intention of surviving one shoot during 1934 while looking as authentic as possible. No one at Fox expected it to be a collectors item 80 years later!

A little while later, Tonya wrote to me because she had the chance to pick up one of the costumes that was not in great condition. It was a silk gown styled as a mid 19th century dress worn in The Little Colonel,

Like many films from Hollywood’s golden age—Shirley’s southern civil war- period films have painfully racist segments—you have to see them as a product of their time, but also appreciate that oddly, these films managed to make film history at the same time by showing the first white/black dancing couple( with Bill Bojangles Robinson) who affectionately hold hands, for instance. Their scenes were regularly trimmed from the films for distribution in the south, but they made four pictures together, Robinson coached her dancing on a number of other films, and they were friends off camera. The Robinsons joined Shirley’s family for dinners at the Temple home for instance and stayed friends until Robinson’s death, so the behind the scenes story has a much more contemporary feel than anything you learn while watching their film work together!

ANYWAY, back to textiles: Silk can be problematic at best, and nearly hopeless at worst and this satin gown was in fair but fragile condition when photographed for the above picture by Therieault’s.  It was sold to another collector and by the time Tonya purchased it, the silk had shattered terribly and the dress was on its way to becoming a rag.

a close up look at the shattering silk on The Little Colonel gown before the conservation.

There’s so much to say about this dress, I’m splitting it into two posts! In part 2, I’ll show you the finished product and talk a bit about the extensive conservation treatment that this dress received at Museum Textile Services, a museum-quality conservation studio in Massachusetts.

It’s an important costume with bulletproof provenance, but  unless a donor funded the conservation process? History museums wouldn’t touch a dress like this with a ten foot pole. It was just too damaged.

To preserve the costume for history’s sake, it was painstakingly taken apart by hand and rebuilt over a supportive backing with new satin when needed.  This dress would not have survived without Tonya’s dedication and investment.  (she not only purchased the dress from the secondary seller, she also paid for the conservation!)

I think you’ll be very impressed to see the final product!

As always, the links you see here add interesting information to each Hidden Fashion History post –I do not make any money from them if you click into them–they are for information purposes only!  🙂