MCI repairs and conserves Rosa Parks' dress

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Ms. Rosa Parks was riding a public bus and thinking about finishing a new dress. Ms. Parks, a professional seamstress, was sewing a dress for herself this time. Her thoughts were interrupted by an order, and her refusal, to relinquish her seat on a segregated bus. That refusal and her subsequent arrest led to the famous 382 day long Montgomery, Alabama boycott and became an important symbol of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Now the dress itself will become an icon of the new National Museum for African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The delicate rayon georgette print dress made its way into NMAAHC in 2007 through the new museum’s acquisition of the Black Fashion Museum (BFM), of Washington, DC, and on to the Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) for conservation. By the time it arrived at MCI, it had acquired numerous small but disfiguring tears. Under the guidance of MCI’s senior textile conservator, conservation interns repaired the tears using dyed chiffon and a fine silk thread called ‘hair silk’, also dyed to match, in a couching stitch to follow the grain of the weave. Following a careful regime of anoxic pest-control treatment, cleaning, photography, accessioning, repair and re-housing, the dress is now fit for exhibiting.

Ms. Rosa Parks’ dress is one of the BMF’s estimated 700 garments, 150 hats, 100 pairs of shoes, 50 handbags, and nearly 60 boxes of photographs, files, and ephemera. BFM’s collection was founded in 1979 by Lois K. Alexander-Lane with a mission to collect costumes of American designers of color, and later included costumes worn by well-known African Americans or in theatrical productions with African-American casts. MCI in a partnership with NMAAHC is providing conservation and scientific analysis for this major acquisition.–The project’s goal is to preserve BFM’s priceless costumes, and to re-establish this collection as an accessible, researchable, entity that is a unique asset to NMAAHC and the Smithsonian Institution. In the process, MCI conservators are providing training to the museum’s growing staff in conserving and studying this important collection.