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Behind the Scenes in Conservation: 1920s Chanel Sequined Dress

by Obie Linn, Associate Conservator of Textiles


CAMConservation , vintage , Chanel , textile conservation , sequins

Here in the Conservation Lab, our tasks include determining how a particular collections object might have been damaged over time. Heat and moisture melted the missing sequins on this 1925–1926 party dress at the wearer’s armpit. How is that possible? When the fashion house of Coco Chanel created this dress, sequins were typically made of gelatin or sometimes casein (an early form of plastic made from milk proteins. Yes, really!) which could deform or melt away completely in the presence of water and heat. You can see some of the melted, deformed sequins near the edge of the area where they are gone completely and even some crusty salty-looking accretions.

Sequins and sparkle are “super in” this year, but did you know the history of sequins as a dress adornment goes back thousands of years? The first “sequins” were stamped metal disks, but sequins were made of early plastics almost as soon as these materials were invented. Conservators need to know about the history of materials such as these to prevent damage and to treat damaged objects in their care. For this dress, the lost sequins will be mostly hidden while on display, so we probably won’t attempt to replace them, but it’s important to be aware that this object is covered in thousands of fragile, moisture-and-heat-sensitive gelatin sequins as we prepare it to travel on international loan later this year. Definitely no drinks after midnight (or ever!) for this object.

Coco Chanel (attributed maker, French, 1883-1971) Dress, 1925-26, Gift of Mrs. Joseph B. Andrews, 1969.85

Coco Chanel (attributed maker, French, 1883-1971) Dress, 1925-26, Gift of Mrs. Joseph B. Andrews, 1969.85