By now, Hillary Rodham Clinton will have received a politely worded letter from the Smithsonian Institution circumspectly requesting that she fork over her inaugural ball gown. By no means is she compelled to part with the spectacular violet dress, the letter says, but it has become, well, traditional for First Ladies' first gowns to end up on mannequins, behind glass, and bathed in low, low light in the National Museum of American History.
The First Lady is expected to comply, and Polly Willman is getting ready to roll up her sleeves and prepare the gown for posterity. Willman is the costume conservator for the National Museum of American History's department of conservation, and she figures she has a job ahead of her.
It is Willman's task to keep the nearly 30 First Ladies' gowns in the Smithsonian in the best shape possible, even in the face of the most inexorable enemy of fine clothes: time. And, in the case of Mrs. Clinton's gown, also: party food, protruding nails and wood splinters, limo doors and other fabric-destroying dangers common to the inaugural ball.
Not just inaugural balls, but any festive occasion in the real, fabric-unfriendly world. It can be difficult to keep a fine garment--a wedding gown, for instance--in apple-pie shape over the years but, said Willman, the same techniques used by professional conservators can be borrowed by anyone who wants to evoke memories by holding onto and preserving significant clothes.
Strategy No. 1 for the professional conservator, said Willman, standing among replicas of First Ladies' gowns at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda last week before her lecture on Historical Research on First Lady Gowns, is to know the garment--really know it. Is it made from a single fabric or a combination? Natural or synthetic? Are there special finishes and dyes? All these factors affect the way a garment will age, she said.
Many of the gowns acquired by the Smithsonian were already in varying states of deterioration when they arrived, said Willman, and had to be treated--and studied--accordingly.
"We have to know what it was, what it is now and how it got to that stage," said Willman.
Many of the gowns, particularly from the 19th Century, have faded dramatically from exposure to what Willman called the worst enemy of fabric: light. Lucretia Garfield's 1881 gown, for instance, was originally heliotrope but had become faded to a kind of dusty tan. Also, she said, some garments will be dyed with a combination of two colors, and over the years one of the colors will fade while the other will hold fast. Today, however, most colored garments are made with fiber-reactive dyes that are far more stable, she said.
Gowns from the 19th Century also present the problem of actual daily wear and tear. Unlike the formal gowns of today, which are often worn only once, gowns from the last century often were altered and worn many times, said Willman, and occasionally they were completely re-cut into a new garment entirely. Conservators discover such details, she said, by laying the garments out flat on a table and running gloved hands over every inch of fabric and seams.
Such exacting care isn't needed in order to properly preserve a modern garment, said Willman, but the same deteriorating elements should be kept away from it. Light, again, is the principal foe because "it not only affects color, it causes photoretardation of fibers," said Willman. "It weakens the fabric and the effects are irreversible."
Natural fabrics are more vulnerable, she said, but synthetics can also be affected. And if a gown is said to be made of silk, it may not be all silk. Barbara Bush's inaugural gown, for instance, contained some acetate and rayon, said Willman.
The solution: keep the garment away from not only sunlight, but artificial illumination, preferably in a garment bag or a box.
Before packing the garment away, however, make sure it's clean.
"Take it to a professional soon, " said Willman, "because the fabric can get stained by wine or wedding cake or sweaty grooms' hands, and these harm the fabric. The sooner you get it cleaned, the easier it is to get the stains out."
When the garment is ready to be stored, the best method is to pack it away unfolded. Many commercial cleaners, said Willman, will box a wedding dress for storage, but any folding or creasing of the garment will weaken the fabric. A large box or a garment bag is better.
The gown should be stored away from any extremes of temperature, light and humidity, said Willman, and should be handled as little as possible. Veils, particularly, are vulnerable to damage this way, she said.
"The less handling, the better," she said. "And playing dress-up in it isn't a good idea, either. If you want to show it, lay it flat and try not to lift it too much."
And try not to get too crazy while you're wearing it in the first place. That's Willman's worry about the Clinton gown, particularly the diaphanous material trailing from the parent garment.
"You just know that during the course of the evening she's going to catch that on nails and in car doors and things like that," said Willman, shaking her head slightly and, undoubtedly, seeing a restoration job ahead of her.
Future free lectures in the "Lady of the House: Great Wives of Great Presidents" series at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace include:
* "Martha Washington," by Richard Norton Smith, director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum & Birthplace, Feb. 18 at 10:30 a.m.
* "Pat Nixon," by Clement Conger, former curator of the White House and the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the Department of State, March 18 at 10:30 a.m.
* "Lou Henry Hoover," by Herbert Hoover III, grandson of the President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, April 8 at 10:30 a.m.
For more information, call the library at (714) 993-3393.