What’s that smell? Getting personal with historic costumes

Here Is a Play Fitted is on view through January 12, 2013

Here Is a Play Fitted is on view through January 12, 2013

The Folger’s current exhibition, Here Is a Play Fitted, takes a broad look at how Shakespeare on the stage has changed over the past 400 years. For a full look at that topic, you have until January 12, 2014 to see the exhibition—and you should! But for this blog post, I’d like to focus in on one small aspect of this exhibition about staging Shakespeare: costumes.

Although people usually think of books and manuscripts when they think of the Folger’s holdings, the collection does indeed include some historic costumes, three of which guest curator Denise A. Walen selected for display in this exhibition. We also included two modern costumes (and a plastic donkey head) from the Folger Theatre archives. One of the major undertakings in putting this exhibition together was figuring out how to display these five costumes, since it is not something we do regularly, and since our own conservation lab is designed to care for books and paper, not textiles. 

We hired the services of local textile conservator Julia Brennan, who assessed the condition of the historic costumes, and set to work with minor treatments to stabilize and strengthen these textiles for display. Although being displayed on a mannequin is the ideal way to view a garment, it can put great stress on a costume (think about sweaters hanging in your closet), so Julia and her staff added supports to the mounts—not just at the shoulders, but throughout the costumes, as appropriate, to help distribute the weight of the textiles.

Jane Schwartz and Lorenza Lattanzi make adjustments for Edwin Booth’s Richard III costume.

Jane Schwartz and Lorenza Lattanzi make adjustments for Edwin Booth’s Richard III costume.

Lorenza Lattanzi buttons up Romeo.

Lorenza Lattanzi buttons up Romeo.

Several of the costumes were steamed to remove wrinkles from years in storage, but Julia Marlowe’s Juliet gown proved a special problem—it is covered in gelatin sequins, which, when damp, turn sticky, and when wet, simply disintegrate. So much for cleaning; so much for steaming. Nevertheless, the early 20th-century gown looks remarkably elegant in its temporary home on display with E.H. Sothern’s Romeo tunic and hat. Marlowe and Sothern were acclaimed American Shakespearean actors in the early 20th century, and Library founder Henry Folger saw them perform several times on stage. He even corresponded with Marlowe, offering suggestions for a bit of stage business to improve the famous tomb scene at the end of Romeo and Juliet. I’m not sure I’d take such unsolicited criticism so well, but Marlowe responded with a great deal of grace—and restraint. And, while it’s unclear whether a friendship formed between the two, Julia Marlowe left the Folger costumes, promptbooks, stage props, and other items that constitute a wonderful collection and record of theatrical history.

Romeo and Juliet costumes worn by Julia Marlowe and E.H. Sothern.

Romeo and Juliet costumes worn by Julia Marlowe and E.H. Sothern on display; see the actors wearing the costumes in this photograph in the Folger collections.

If conservation is sometimes tricky, it can also be surprising. Conservator Lorenza Lattanzi discovered, as she was mending the tunic Edwin Booth wore as Richard III, that the shoulder hump in the costume that represents Richard’s deformity is a bundle of horse hair sewn into the fabric (more on that later).

Richard III tunic worn by Edwin Booth in the 1870s.

Richard III tunic worn by Edwin Booth in the 1870s.

Julia, Jane, and Lorenza studied whatever contemporary images we could provide for them, to better understand the original look of the costumes when they were worn by actors on the stage and to mount the costumes in the most appropriate manner. The dress forms or mannequins that were used all had to be built out to fit and support the costume, some more than others. Julia Marlowe’s Juliet dress, for example, needed to have an ample bust and rear added to fill the contours of the dress; another costume required a sort of “fat suit” to beef up the slight dress form enough to support the textiles.

The dress form for Juliet gets a full figure in order to fill out and support the textile.

The dress form for Juliet gets a full figure in order to fill out and support the textile.

When the work of conserving and mounting the costumes was complete, Folger paper conservator Rhea DeStefano and I went to Julia’s studio to pick up the costumes. Because they had been dressed and prepared at the studio, we carefully covered them in clean linens and secured them inside our rented van to transport them across town in their finished state.

Lorenza Lattanzi, Caryn Lazzuri, and Rhea DeStefano unload a shrouded costume.

Lorenza Lattanzi, Caryn Lazzuri, and Rhea DeStefano unload a shrouded costume.

It occurred to me only after we’d arrived back at the Folger to wonder what would have happened if the Capitol Police had inspected our van and found five shrouded bodies in the back. But no matter; that didn’t happen, we unloaded everything without a hitch, and installed the costumes into their exhibition cases.

But that’s not where this story ends.

We installed the costumes in their cases at the front end of our two-week installation; it was nearly a week later that we opened the cases to work on lighting. And when I opened the case that contained Edwin Booth’s costume, a strong smell hit me like a wall. What was that? Were our new cases off-gassing? But none of the other cases smelled that way, so it seemed pretty unlikely that was the cause.

I brought one of the conservators over to investigate, and there was no mistake—a strong smell was emanating from this case. We placed a sheet of activated charcoal into the case to absorb odors of any toxic substance that might be off-gassing. But it is unclear what the smell might be: the velvet of the tunic degrading with time, perhaps, or the horse hair in that shoulder hump? The horse hair does seem a likely suspect, but perhaps—could it be—Edwin Booth himself? Of course it’s speculation, but a costume worn on stage in the 1870s for night after night of performance, and never deeply cleaned afterwards. . . I like to think we never noticed the acrid smell because it was stored in a box in our vault with plenty of air circulating around it, and only after a week confined in a small space with minimal air exchange did the real stench of a sweating human body radiate from the cloth.

My very favorite items in the Folger collection are ones I can attach a human significance to, like the orchestral sheet music a musician doodled on while waiting to play his part of the score, or like the personal letters sent back and forth between Henry Folger and actress Julia Marlowe. And what could be more human than body odor? Horse hair is one guess, but I like to believe that some 140 years after he appeared on stage, I smelled Edwin Booth himself.

Historic and modern costumes are displayed down the center of the Folger’s Great Hall.

Historic and modern costumes are displayed down the center of the Folger’s Great Hall.

 

Author: Caryn Lazzuri

CARYN LAZZURI is Exhibitions Manager at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a post that includes everything from editing label text to searching the internet for fresh violets in January. In addition to her background in museum exhibitions, she holds an MFA in poetry.

One Comment

  1. We call that “actor juice!” Charming, no?

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