The story of Zemire

Ahead of an Orientalist Museum conference we hear about a special Dior dress

The story of Zemire
The story of Zemire Image #2

Ahead of the Orientalist Museum’s art conservation conference this month, we speak to textile conservator Frances Hartog about a Dior dress that has been on quite a journey.

What happened to the ‘Zemire’?
We know this particular version of Dior’s ‘Zemire’ costume was commissioned by a textile manufacturer’s wife around 1956 but its story after that is uncertain, until it was found by the Victoria & Albert Museum’s senior curator of fashion, Claire Wilcox, in an auction house in Paris in 2006. It was in a terrible state which was said to be the result of its storage in a cellar near the Seine and its use as a fancy dress costume. At the auction, Claire was apparently the only person to recognise exactly what it was enabling her to buy it with relative ease for the V&A’s exhibition ‘The Golden Age of Couture’.

Apart from its intriguing story, why is this dress so significant?
It is significant as Dior’s most historically inspired design and it is probable that this is the only version to survive. It is also a good illustration of Dior’s business acumen, as he allowed his creation to be made in the fuchsia pink, cellulose acetate fabric manufactured by his client’s husband – a far cry from his original much more subtle design in pale grey silk trimmed with mink.

What did it take to restore it?
Quite a lot of luck! And lots of testing to see if it could be cleaned, as heavy soiling was the greatest problem, and if so then how? Then it was a matter of holding one’s nerve and carrying out what the tests had indicated was safe. The skirt was also challenging as the complex pleating had been removed, changing its shape. To reinstate the pleats was a question of trial and error and dogged determination.

How long did it take to restore it?
The conservation treatment, including testing, analysis and mounting for display took 183 hours which was undertaken over a two month period.

How many people were involved?
I carried out the practical work, calling on my colleagues for assistance when extra hands were needed for handling. I also mounted the costume for display but with frequent consultation from one of my costume mounting specialist colleagues. It is crucial that the correct shape is achieved and that the costume has enough support when it is on display.

How did you end up in this field?
It was actually a set of 16th century tapestries that first captured my imagination and led me to seek a career as a textile conservator.

Why do you love your job?
I love the extraordinary range of objects I work on. There is no possible chance of being bored. I enjoy being part of a large, skilled team and working alongside enthusiastic curators who are experts on the museum’s collection.

What is a regular day at the office like for you?
Regular – that’s difficult. Well, I start early around 7am and have about an hour or so of peace and quiet which I use to catch up on administrative, computer related tasks. After which I try and move on to bench work, actually treating objects. Inevitably this is disturbed by meetings; we tend to work on several projects simultaneously. All require time and resource management; liaising with curators, administrators, technicians; logistics related to object moves and space; display solutions etc. I work on site in the museum and colleagues drop by with unforeseen queries, problems and requests. Enquiries also come in from other collections and the general public. Some of my day is spent training, I am supervising a student at present and we also have an intern. Though time consuming, training is extremely rewarding and is one of the things I enjoy most, it keeps you on your toes. My days are very full and by the end, around 5.30pm – 6pm, I am fairly exhausted but there is usually a sense of progress.

What is the most interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
This is a very hard question. As each project presents itself you become totally immersed. But one of the most rewarding was the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries which opened at the V&A at the end of 2011. I oversaw the conservation of the textiles. There were 95 in total which is not a large amount but many of them were extremely fragile. The largest and most complex to conserve was a 15th century tapestry measuring 4.5mx7m.Its treatment took two of us nearly 4,000 hours to complete!

What do you hope to achieve with your talk at this conference in Doha?
I understand the conference is open to the public so I would like to give them a snapshot, behind the scenes insight into conservation and hopefully ignite their interest. I am hoping people will come away with an appreciation of what it takes to preserve a relatively simple costume and therefore a deeper understanding of the complexities of maintaining a museum collection.
Frances Hartog is visiting from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the Past to Present: Art Conservation Conference on November 28, noon-5pm. It is open to the public in the Museum of Islamic Art Auditorium (

The other speakers

Michel van de Laar (Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands) will discuss the restoration work undertaken on three Rembrandt paintings

Flavio Marzo (British Library, England) will present case studies in book restoration

Sonia Tortajada (Museo Del Prado, Spain) will examine the conservation of plaster sculptures

Jutta Hoeflinger (Vienna Museum of Fine Arts, Austria) will be discussing her work restoring Portrait of a Young Lady (1514)

Kristina Gisladottir (Orientalist Museum, Qatar) will showcase her conservation treatment on a Jean-Baptiste Vanmour painting from the permanent collection

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