Fashion student redesigns 256-year-old dress for thesis

Allison Tomei

Kristina Hill, senior fashion design major does stitching on an 18th century dress to be featured in an upcoming exhibition “Sleuthing at the Seams”. Hill has been working on reconstructing the dress with Jean Druesedow, Kent State University Museum direc

Credit: John Proppe

When fashion design student Kristina Hill volunteered in her sophomore year to reconstruct a blue and silver dress from 1750 as her honors thesis, she had no idea it would take almost two years to complete.

Now a senior, Hall has not only finished the dress, but earned herself an exhibition in the Kent State University Museum.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “I’m so excited to see it on a mannequin, completely done.”

Shannon Rodgers, co-founder of the School of Fashion Design and Merchandising, purchased the original dress in 1978, said Jean Druesedow, director of the museum.

The dress, made of blue silk and brocaded in silver, was altered numerous times since its original manufacturing. At the start of the project it was in hundreds of pieces, Hill said.

Druesedow said she tried working on the dress in 1995, and even hired a woman who was trained in textile construction to help her reconstruct the dress. She was unsuccessful in her first attempt.

“The woman basically disappeared, I don’t know what happened to her. And then, all of a sudden, all of my Xeroxes I was working on disappeared,” she said.

Druesedow put the dress away until Spring 2005, when she needed to show her Honors History of Costume class a silk textile from the 18th century.

After showing the class, Druesedow thought that someone should try to pick up where she left off nearly a decade earlier.

“I realized it had been remade since the 18th century by others, and thought it would be nice to return it to its original shape,” she said.

Druesedow then asked her class if anyone wanted to reconstruct the dress as part of his or her senior thesis requirement, and Hill volunteered.

“I really liked the History of Costume class and the museum, so I thought I might like this project,” Hill said.

Hill worked closely with Druesedow, taking tips and learning as much as she could about the era in which the dress was made.

“I didn’t know anything about putting this together,” she said. “Thankfully, Jean knows a ridiculous amount of information about historical costume, so she knew what year it was made.”

Hill said she did research on dresses from that time by referencing other garments similar to it, including a dress in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The process involved a careful analysis of the dress’s pattern to determine where various pieces belonged.

“It really was a jigsaw puzzle, just putting things down and seeing if it was right,” she said.

Druesedow said once the original pieces were thought to be in place, they discovered that the skirt pieces had all been cut the same length.

“This was our most important discovery,” she said. “It let us know the most probable shape of the dress originally.”

Then, each piece had to be stitched to an underlying piece of fabric to keep it in position. This process is called “couching,” and Hill said couching the pieces to the underlying fabric was the hardest part of the entire project.

“I had this tiny needle and clear thread to stitch with. I couldn’t see anything and I had to make small stitches,” she said.

Since the dress was tattered and worn with age, certain parts of it were missing or needed to be replaced. Janice Lessman-Moss, a professor in the School of Art, dyed new fabric to match with the original coloring of the dress, Druesedow said.

Hill and Druesedow also had to experiment with colors of thread that would replicate the original silver woven into the dress.

This embroidery will be done on the new fabric and inserted where large sections of the original are missing, Druesedow said.

After two years of work, the replica is complete and scheduled to make its appearance in the Kent State University Museum Oct. 1.

Druesedow said that doing this project should give Hill many opportunities in her career in the areas of costume restoration and museum work.

“She (Hill) had to investigate things that others don’t do until grad school,” Druesedow said.

No one knows exactly where the dress originated or where it was worn. Druesedow said this style of dress was only worn at very formal occasions.

“I have this secret fantasy it was worn at an elegant theater, but that’s just a fantasy,” she said.

The exhibition is titled, “Sleuthing at the Seams: A 1750’s Blue and Silver Dress.” Entrance to the museum is free with a Kent State ID.

Contact School of Fashion Design and Merchandising reporter Allison Tomei at [email protected].