The Difference is in the Details: Installing Marlene Dietrich’s Gown at the Skirball Cultural Center

Thanks to FIDM Museum Registrar Meghan Hansen for today's post! It features a highlight of our collection: a gown worn by Marlene Dietrich both on-screen and off. Designed by Irene Lentz Gibbons, Dietrich's gown will be on display at the Skirball Cultural Center from October 23 through March 1, 2015.


The FIDM Museum prides itself on attention to detail, whether it's a new discovery in the history of fashion or getting the color balance just right in our publications. When it comes to the presentation of our collection at outside institutions, we are just as meticulous.

Gown worn by Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair (1948).
Loan courtesy of the City of Los Angeles, Department of Recreation and Parks (L88.1.235).

As the Skirball Cultural Center began planning its exhibition Light & Noir: Emigres and Exiles in Hollywood, 1933-1950, curator Doris Berger contacted our Associate Curator Christina Johnson to select a Hollywood costume that fit with the exhibition's theme: the impact of German-speaking exiles and émigrés on the Hollywood film industry. Doris Berger selected this paisley floral evening gown designed by Irene Lentz Gibbons for Marlene Dietrich to wear in A Foreign Affair (1948), a photograph of Dietrich wearing the same gown at a previous USO performance, and a pair of evening pumps worn by Dietrich for stage performance.

A second photograph to be exhibited alongside this luxurious dress shows Dietrich performing with large flowers tucked into the dress' neckline (perhaps an explanation as to why the bodice lining has required extensive stabilization by a conservator). With this styling in mind, FIDM Museum Collection Manager, Carolyn Jamerson, customized a mannequin with padding to fit the dress perfectly.

Exhibit29-14Mannequin with custom padding to precisely fit Marlene Dietrich's gown.

Carolyn also prepared two bunches of vintage silk flowers to tuck into the neckline, imitating the floral arrangement in Dietrich's performance photographs. To see this photograph on exhibit, visit Light & Noir between October 23, 2014 and March 1, 2015.


Exhibit29-16I help Christina to carefully steam prop silk flowers for display at the neckline of the gown.

One of many unexpected skills required by fashion museum staff is that of steaming silk flowers. Christina carefully steamed each petal of the flowers so that they looked like new, then used entomological pins to secure the flower bunches to the dress and mannequin padding. Entomological (or bug) pins are ideal for historical garments because they can pass through fabric between the threads of the weave without breaking the fibers. Any intervention used for exhibition installation must not damage the object and must be fully reversible, according to current conservation standards.

Exhibit29-15Christina secures the floral adornment to the mannequin beneath the dress.

Cooperation between various institutions is an important part of making many educational museum exhibitions possible in Los Angeles, the United States, and internationally. Thank you to the staff at the Skirball Cultural Center for accommodating our specialized installation needs!


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