In the textile archives of the Pasadena Museum of History lies a 1920s turquoise ball gown bedecked with a beaded city skyline.
But this isn’t just any old garment — it was someone’s wedding dress.
The turquoise gown is one of more than 70 in the museum’s wedding dress collection. A group of volunteers and museum staff members have been working for more than a year to inventory the dresses and compile a digital archive.
The public can learn more about the gowns in a museum exhibit scheduled to open sometime next year..
The collection ranges from 1859 to the 1940s, and includes a variety of styles, fabrics, designs and even colors. And as the turquoise dress shows, museum volunteer Suzanne Ehrmann said, the traditional white wedding dress wasn’t always the norm.
“It was their best dress,” Ehrmann said. “So they didn’t just wear it once.”
To create a digital record of the dresses, volunteers take a photo of each gown on a mannequin and record any information provided by the donor, such as the type of fabric, where and when it was worn and if it has a connection to a notable Pasadena family.
Ehrmann said the process is so time-consuming that she and her fellow volunteer, Dr. Elizabeth Smalley, can only get three dresses done each working day. They recently finished the photographing process, which took a year, and now the information must be entered into the museum’s computer system.
“Inventory control is the key to success for any museum,” Director of Collections Laura Verlaque said. “If you forget the history of an artifact, it becomes useless.”
The archiving process presents more obstacles than one might suspect. The volunteers couldn’t use a normal plastic mannequin, for example; they had to purchase special ones made of archival styrofoam, a material that won’t leech harmful chemicals into the garments.
Not only that, the mannequins had to be child-sized because the average waist size for the historic dresses is 18 inches. Only today’s pre-teen-sized mannequins would work.
One of the most important qualities about the gowns is that they have a connection to Pasadena, Verlaque said. The museum’s gown collection lives up to that expectation; it includes a dress from the Giddings family, who founded the Mountain View Cemetery.
There is also a dress that belonged to the niece of California Gov. Henry Markham, and a veil that belonged to the Fenyes family, whose historic mansion sits behind the museum.
“Fashion is an interesting way to tell the area’s cultural history,” Collections Manager Michelle Turner said.
A selection from the museum’s collection will appear in an exhibit in spring 2013 called “I do, I do: Tying the Knot in Pasadena, 1860-2010.” Verlaque said they chose to do the exhibit because of the important role weddings and fashion have played in people’s lives in all eras.
“The fantasy and romance of weddings is something that is important to everybody,” Verlaque said.
The show will also reveal how this important event has changed over time, featuring the historic dresses and photographs as well as some more modern gowns.
“It will be an interesting statement on women’s history, how brides have changed, how women have seen themselves over the years,” Verlaque said.