Restoring the Memorial Dress by Hunter ReynoldsKenneth D. King revives a unique ballgown for an exhibition.
In the spring, I began an artwork restoration project on a unique piece known as the Memorial Dress by an artist friend, Hunter Reynolds. The dress is a black taffeta ballgown silk-screened with the names of 25,000 people known to have died of AIDS-related illnesses, and it was to be part of an exhibition in London.
Hunter created the dress some 25 years ago, but it had faded in places over time and the bodice was especially compromised.
An award-winning visual artist and AIDS activist, Hunter got his start in the late 1980s. His much lauded work has been featured in numerous exhibitions and remains part of several public and private collections. He contacted me on behalf of the Hayward Gallery in London to help him with the restoration. The gallery features the Memorial Dress in the Kiss My Genders exhibition, June 12 through September 8, 2019.
Reading the names printed on the ballgown’s skirt was particularly moving to me, as I lived through that dark time.
Restore, not remake
In order for the dress to be displayed, it needed work. Since there wasn’t enough fabric to remake the garment, we decided to make the skirt look as good as possible, and refresh the bodice. There were salt stains on the one blank panel on the skirt back. Fortunately, there was printing on that panel’s reverse side.
Straightforward skirt fix
I removed the skirt from the bodice. They were two separate pieces, connected by elastic. When removing the skirt, I color-coded the elastics to the matching points on the bodice, so the gown would go back together exactly as the original.
The skirt was an easy fix, as it was a simple operation to take the stained panel out of the skirt, press it, and reinstall it with the printed side on the right side. After a good press, the skirt appeared much improved.
Tackling the bodice
The bodice, however, needed more work. From a curatorial standpoint, I didn’t want to remove any original material. Whatever changes I made, I wanted to be completely reversible, and I didn’t want to destroy any of the original garment.
Hunter had a length of the original fabric to work with, so we decided to upholster new fabric onto the existing bodice.
Make a pattern
This involved making a pattern from the existing bodice. The first step: Mark stitching lines by thread tracing.
Using silk organza, I traced off copies of each garment section. Since this garment was a one-off, there were minor asymmetries that needed to be replicated.
I also wanted to duplicate the placement of the text on each bodice section. That was noted on the organza as well.
Once the information was on the organza, I traced it onto paper. This made marking the fabric for construction easier, and it gave Hunter a pattern for his archive.
I measured the original finished seam lengths to make sure I copied everything correctly. There were minor corrections.
Cut the pieces
Next, came cutting the pieces in muslin.
I wanted to mark the stitching lines and text placement onto the muslin. Having muslin underneath the new fabric, would provide a buffer between the old and new fabric. I used a dual tracing wheel and carbon paper to transfer all the information onto the muslin. Marking stitching lines on the muslin ensured that when sewn together, the re-created bodice would fit the original.
Next came cutting the fabric. I was careful to make sure everything was correctly placed on the fabric before cutting, as this was the only existing fabric. There was no room for mistakes.
The muslin pieces were basted to the wrong side of the printed fabric.
The finished pieces were cut and ready for sewing.
Sew the bodice pieces together
First, I staystitched the top and waist edges, then I sewed the vertical seams.
After sewing, I trimmed the muslin’s seam allowances close to the stitching, pressed the seam allowances open, and hand-tacked the vertical seam allowances to the muslin. The top and waist edges were pressed under along the staystitching line.
To attach the new sections to the bodice, I used a slipstitch.
The finished work was ready to reattach to the skirt.
The restored Memorial Dress is now on display at the Hayward Gallery.
Hunter Reynolds can be seen on Instagram @hunterwreynolds.
Photos by Kenneth D. King, except where noted.
Get the latest including tips, techniques and special offers straight to your inbox.