Joséphine & the Historical Costumier – Luca Costigliolo

Well it’s been a week since the lovely Luca Costigliolo departed for Budapest to continue making the costumes for tv series the Borgias.  Saabik, film student extraordinaire has received a 1st Class Honours this week, as has Gemma, in her Costume Construction for Stage and Screen course, and Alice has started her work experience at Metro Radio.  Robin’s Mum, Trisha is busy writing her new book and I have been rushing around putting up flags outside the Museum and preparing for the opening of our next big exhibition, Keith Coventry Black Bronze White Slaves!

For those of you who missed my daily stream of consciousness on Facebook over the two week project, I thought it would be a fitting end to put them altogether in a blog for posterity.  Here they are:

Monday 25 June
Luca arrives to meet the team and establish his workshop in the Museum’s Jubilee Room.  It’s hoped that a couple of teething problems with the sewing machine and the mannequin are quickly sorted, as time is definitely of the essence!
Tuesday 26 June
On day 2 of Luca Costigliolo’s live re-creation of Joséphine Bowes ball gown, there is much activity in the Jubilee Room! Luca, historical costumier, and 2 willing helpers (Robin & Gemma) are cutting out the pink silk for the skirt of Joséphine’s dress.
Wednesday 27 June
The skirt of Joséphine’s re-created dress is now taking shape and the team have made a start on the petticoat. Visitors have been popping into Luca’s workshop all day to ask him questions about his work and aspirations for the week. Students from Teesside University have been filming all the activity so watch this space tomorrow.
Thursday 28 June
On day 4 of Luca’s magical design of the ball gown, he is busy creating the crinoline with the help of Robin, a student from Cleveland College of Art & Design. He has set himself a deadline of finishing by 5 o’clock today so that he is on target to re-create the dress in the two weeks for the live exhibition. Gemma is putting the gathering stitches into the petticoat, and a local jewellery expert, Rosemary McGarr has arrived to examine Joséphine’s belt from the collection. Rosemary is studying the construction of the belt, the stones used and the precise sizing so that she can re-create one identical using modern materials to eventually sit round the waist of the finished dress.
The media students, Saabik and Alice have produced an introductory video to Luca’s work and are filming Luca’s progress to produce a longer film to be used within the Fashion & Textiles Gallery and possibly the BBC at the end of the project.
Friday 29 June
Really getting to know the little team working with Luca, historical costumier of BBC fame. Gemma is patiently re-doing the gathering on the petticoat because perfectionist Luca said ‘it wasn’t quite right’! Robin is gently and quietly assisting Luca in the construction of the crinoline with steel hoops, passing each one individually through the tape and securing with neat stitches. Saabik and Alice are meticulously filming every crucial stage of the process for posterity and learning every intimate detail about the creation of the dress so that they can portray Luca’s work in the most accurate way to those not able to see it in person.
Luca, himself, is always concentrating, excited by the very dramatic and obvious shape developing in the crinoline. It seems that the effort and hours of work going into creating the perfect shape in the crinoline is absolutely essential preparation for the style of the finished dress.
Tomorrow Luca will continue with the sewing of the skirt and maybe begin the cutting out of the bodice of the dress. The arrival of the (altered) mannequin today was crucial to begin creating the dress to fit the exact size of our founder, Joséphine.
Next week visitors should be able to see the work pick up speed as much of the under garments will be completed and the pink silk dress will begin to materialise before their very eyes!

Monday 2 July

So, we have reached day 7 already in the magical re-creation of Joséphine’s dress.  Now that the crinoline is finally finished, Luca is concentrating on padding the mannequin in preparation for making the pattern for the bodice of the dress. The petticoat is almost done, thanks to the patience of Gemma who has been gathering the waistband for what seems like days! However, it fits like a glove over the top of the crinoline and now just needs hemming to the length of Joséphine’s height.
Luca is heavily concentrating his efforts on getting the waist size of the mannequin to mirror that of Joséphine. Having measured the belt which is in the permanent Museum collection, we know that her waist size was something just less than 23 inches. So once the padded mannequin has a corset, crinoline, petticoat and dress over the top, the 23 inch belt should fit snugly around the waist!
Saabik and Alice have produced another fantastic film of the early stages of the process which will be posted on YouTube for all to see.
Today the team worked quietly but efficiently behind closed doors to pick up momentum for the final stages of the project. Tomorrow, the doors are open again to the public and visitors can pop in and out as they please, asking questions and watching the close-knit team at work. The atmosphere within the make-shift workshop (the Jubilee Room) is one of anticipation and quiet confidence. Without wanting to add more pressure to the task of re-creating a dress from just a single portrait, I am dying to know if Luca will finish on time….The students, Saabik and Alice allude to a quickening of pace, but there are still unknown obstacles to overcome, such as technical hitches with the sewing machine, the creation of a replica belt to match the original, the completion of the padding of the mannequin to allow all the layers to fit underneath the belt… Nevertheless, Luca looks determined to finish the project with a flourish. Keep watching to see how the week ends!

Tuesday 3 July
A busy day in The Music Room at the Museum for Luca and the team with only three full days to go! Yesterday, Luca ended up having to ‘melt’ the mannequin, only slightly, with a hairdryer to mould it into a perfect ‘Joséphine’ body shape!
This morning, it was a brisk start with creating the pattern for the bodice. Luca made the first draft out of paper and a toile out of calico. This was fitted to the bodice and tweeked in places where it didn’t quite fit. With an amended paper pattern, the bodice was cut out of the pink silk, with an interlining of cotton sateen. Saabik and Alice arrived mid morning, after waiting to hear Alice’s university results, a 1st for this year’s work so congratulations to her! Gemma was busy working on the waistband of the dress’ skirt and Robin was helping to assemble the bodice.
Luca is very excited about the look of the skirt on the mannequin, when placed over the crinoline and petticoat. It creates a sweep which he is sure mirrors that of the period when Joséphine’s dress would have been the height of fashion.
The folds in the pink silk, woven especially in Como in Italy, also mimick those in the portrait of Joséphine which Luca is using to re-create the dress. The light catches the silk in exactly the same way, so Luca is adament that the material used for Joséphine’s dress-making must have been of the best quality!
The strings of freshwater pearls, for embelishing the dress, have been bought in Portobello market, London at the weekend, and a replica belt is being lovingly assembled to complete the project.
Visitors have enjoyed quietly sitting and taking in the ‘industrious’ atmosphere in Luca’s work space, and asking pertinent questions, from time to time.
With just Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to complete the dress, I would highly recommend you to come along and see Luca at work… with so much going on in the Museum at the moment, my time is limited, but I have somehow managed to make four trips down to the Music Room for progress reports today! Such is the momentum, and one-off experience of seeing someone so talented at work, making an extremely special dress that will be on display for many years to come, that it’s easy to justify joining the team!
Wednesday 4 July
Another fascinating day today with Luca. Pace is picking up and he is getting much stricter with his little team, putting deadlines on their particular parts of the project and telling them to ‘work while you talk’!! Poor Robin and Gemma even had homework last night!!! Robin took the bodice home with him and stitched the pieces together, whilst Gemma took the skirt home to stitch the waistband to the gathers at the top.
When I arrived after lunch, Robin was carefully creating the channels in the bodice to hold the synthetic whalebones (7 in total), in the darts at the front and a couple at the back. Gemma was working on the hem of the skirt with Luca, interlining it with a very light cotton. Luca had cut out the ‘bertha’, an interesting name for the front of the bodice, and had acquired two more merry helpers, named Ann Gill and Alison James to sew the sleeves. It turns out that the two new helpers were on the same course as Robin and Gemma, Costume Construction for Stage and Screen at Cleveland College of Art & Design.
However, one of the most exciting revelations of the day has to be the discovery of the identity of a beautiful purple bodice which the Museum has had in storage. Luca had got two bodices out of storage, one black and one purple to show Robin the detailing on the seams. And out of curiosity he tried the purple bodice on the mannequin which he has created to exactly match Joséphine’s body measurements. It fitted like a glove! Right around the waist, and at the back it fitted exactly so Luca believes it must have been Joséphine’s. The purple material is beautiful and it has gorgeous lace around the neck so it is very exciting to have identified the original wearer!
Anyway, I digress….there are only two days left of this amazing project and the opportunity to see Luca live. Saabik has been meticulously filming all the crucial parts, ably assisted by Alice, sound technician extraordinaire, so visitors will have the chance to see the creation of the dress in the Fashion & Textiles Gallery for years to come. However, there’s nothing like listening to Luca and his melodic Italian accent in person, and feeling the buzz of activity as the team literally piece together history and the dress.

Thursday 5 July
What a day! After torrential storms outside the Museum, creating yet another flooded Bowling Green and, what I hear from reports after the event, rivers running down the Bank in Barney and copious shops flooded in seconds, it seems like Luca had a relatively ‘storm-free’ day!! I arrived at 10 o’clock to be slightly reprimanded on asking the dreaded question ‘will you be finished on time!’
With time becoming very precious, Gemma was still stitching the interlining of the hem, Robin was working on gathering the bertha, for embellishing the front of the bodice and Luca was starting to add the piping to the bodice, the skirt was eventually finished, with the bodice which had numerous fittings onto the mannequin to check the measurements.
Gemma added hooks and eyes to the back of the bodice (another mild telling off for me when I questioned whether they had hooks and eyes in the 19th century!!) Of course, Luca explained that all the techniques he is using to re-create Joséphine’s dress are absolutely authentic, so they did have hooks and eyes, in the beginning of the 19th century made predominently of brass and later of steel, but a tarnished steel, not stainless steel as today.
So, with my lesson on historical hooks and eyes over, I popped into the Jubilee Room to listen to a truly inspirational talk by Robert Swan, polar explorer, as part of our Our Sporting Life exhibition, totally unrelated to Luca and the Costumier, but by now, I am sure you realise, I am easily distracted by all of the fantastic offerings at The Bowes Museum!
The very talented Saabik and Alice were yet again on hand, all day to film the momentous moments of the project. With hard-drives crammed full of footage and their obvious emotional involvement in the creation of a historical dress as part of the enjoyment of visitors to The Museum in the future, their role in the project has been as important as that of Robin and Gemma, who have also toiled tirelessly to stitch to Luca’s exacting standards.
So, if anyone is still craving seeing the action in person, there is, I’m afraid only one day to go…. tomorrow from 10 – 5.
On a sentimental note, I hope John and Joséphine will be impressed by the amount of effort which has gone into re-creating the dress worn by Joséphine in our portrait. It, I am sure, will be a truly welcome addition to our collection for years to come.
Saturday 7 July
So the project is complete! Have just spoken to Luca Costigliolo who is on the train heading to Manchester Airport. He is exhausted but elated about the completion of an intense two week project to re-create Joséphine Bowes’ ballgown using historical techniques.
Yesterday morning, Luca was still working on the bertha, doing zig zag running stitches to gather it up in the haphazard style as seen in the portrait. Robin had created all the eyelets on the back of the bodice ready for the laces. Gemma was completing the sleeves and everyone seemed a little tense about how much there still was to do to complete the dress by the end of the day.
When I left at 1.30pm the mood had lightened, and the team were joking and enjoying the final few hours of what has been an incredible experience, for Luca who has worked with the Museum before in mounting the costumes in the Fashion & Textile Gallery, for Robin and Gemma who have learnt so much from an exquisite teacher, Luca, for Saabik and Alice who have gained some fantastic new contacts, publicity of their work and some great footage of the project from start to finish.
The team finished late last night at about 9.30pm, whilst Inter-Opera were in the full throes of their concert in the Picture Galleries next door to Luca’s workshop (The Music Room). Luca said it was like a comedy sketch at times, as Saabik was trying to film him adding the final flourishes to the dress and the music kept pounding through the walls of the Museum!
As the mannequin was dressed for the last time, with the crinoline made last week, then the petticoat, the skirt, the beautiful bodice, completed with the bertha and two strings of freshwater pearls stiched round the neck and finished with a brooch in the centre, Luca placed Josépine’s belt around the waist. One millimetre either way in the measurements of the dress would have meant that either it would be too slack or not fit over the top of the layers of silk. It fitted perfectly!
Luca then carried the completed dress downstairs to the room where it will be on display amongst John and Joséphine’s own furniture, next to the portrait of Joséphine wearing her original dress. Visitors will be able to see it there for the Summer (apart from the 1st week in August when the mannequin will be trimmed down at the neck) until it is eventually moved into the Fashion & Textiles Gallery.
So as Luca flies off to his next project, and the team disperses with happy memories of the last two weeks, a piece of history has been re-created for posterity and will remain in The Bowes Museum for many to enjoy for years to come.
To watch the films made by Saabik Akhthar & Alice Brown, you can click on the following links to Youtube:

By Alison Nicholson, Marketing Officer

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