Unzipped: Solving an Issue with a Jean Paul Gaultier Prêt-à-Porter Piece

It is not very often that the Textiles Department at The Conservation Center resembles the racks of a high fashion atelier, so when Columbia College Chicago contacted us regarding an iconic piece of French fashion from its Fashion Study Collection, our interest was immediately piqued. Instantly recognizable because of its cone-shaped corset top, the dress, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, arrived at our laboratory with a damaged zipper that posed a threat to the integrity of the outfit as a whole. Because this dress belongs to an academic institution and is used as part of an active study collection, even something as seemingly minute as a damaged zipper could render it useless as a teaching device. As our textiles conservator began to work, she quickly understood that, due to the very technical method in which it was hand-tailored, repairing the zipper was not going to be an easy task.

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For more than 40 years, the name Jean Paul Gaultier has resonated across multiple plains of popular culture. From his Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Porter work, Gaultier’s influential artistry can be seen both on and off the runaway, as his unique, sexy style has significantly infiltrated the film and music industry. His significant contributions to the world of fashion include costumes for films such as The Fifth Element and for popular musicians such as Marilyn Manson and Kylie Minogue. However, it was his work with Madonna—specifically the cone-shaped corset that she wore on stage during her 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour—that propelled both of them to fashion icon status.

Most likely from Gaultier’s Spring/Summer 1987 collection, this black dress from the Fashion Study Collection features a corset structure, a built-in bra featuring concentric circles of decorative stitching to create cone shapes, and shoe laces that hang down to form a fringe skirt. Hints of Madonna’s version can be seen throughout this design that pre-dates the “Blond Ambition” tour by about three years. We can clearly see the aesthetic direction in which Gaultier was heading towards.

More than that, this dress perfectly captures Gaultier’s legacy of transforming what is typically thought of as underwear to outerwear—very avant-garde for the even for the 1980s. This influence has had major reverberations in the fashion world to this day, as one must look no farther than ensembles worn by celebrities such as Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, and Jennifer Lopez from this month’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala to see just how many risks can now be taken without even batting an eyelash. 

The Gaultier dress forms an essential part of Columbia’s working Fashion Study Collection, where its students are given hands-on access to high-end fashion. The tactile relationship with the piece, in which the students can directly handle and observe the intricacies of its construction, was essential, so our textile conservator met with a representative from Columbia College to discuss this important factor prior to beginning treatment. 

The Textiles Department was to tackle the challenges the dress presented. First, as is typical in most conservation projects, the entirety of the dress was carefully vacuumed through a protective screen to remove all traces of dirt and dust. With this done, the main issue of the broken zipper could be confronted. The zipper had started to separate from the bottom up, and was no longer aligning properly, resulting in a lack of functionality. During the initial assessment, it was discussed that the zipper could not be fixed due to the fact it was missing some teeth. It was not recommended to replace the zipper, as it is an extremely important feature of the dress and would mar the artist’s original intent. The optimal option was to hand-stitch the bottom part of the zipper and align it as closely as possible without trying to re-zip it over the broken teeth.

While this prevents the zipper from being moved up and down at the bottom of the dress, it ensures that the zipper will not continue to split further. This treatment was executed in such a way, that the zipper is still functional at the top of the dress so students can gain access to the interior construction without damaging the piece further. Even with the limitations placed on the treatment options, both the integrity of the design and all of the original hardware and stitching was preserved, despite the minor loss of functionality. Without this treatment, the Fashion Study Collection would not have been able to use the dress for fear that it would be completely ruined.

As a result, Columbia College is extremely happy with all of the careful work done on this iconic Jean Paul Gaultier piece. “We are extremely satisfied with the dress treatment. It looks fantastic now,” said Jacqueline Wayne Guite, Fashion Study Collection Manager, Columbia College Chicago. “Even though the zipper cannot be unzipped all the way, it is no longer separated from the bottom up. The trouble areas of the zipper have been stabilized, and we can allow students and faculty to handle it again. This is our first time using the services of The Conservation Center, and we hope to bring in more garments to The Conservation Center for conservation.”

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Based solely on the time and care that our Textile Department was able to put into the dress, it is ensured that the dress will continue to be a major part of the school’s working fashion collection for years to come. Its irreplaceability in Columbia College’s Fashion Study Collection shows just how essential conservation treatments are for large and small collections alike.

Image credits:  aliluminescent.com, blogs.ft.com, thestyleicon.com

Justin Gilman

The business end of Twin. In charge of landing interesting new projects, making clients happy, and coffee. A maker of beautiful music and master of oral sound effects. A secret Jim Henson nerd. Will always find ways of working smarter. Will never participate in karaoke.

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