Lee Miller: Dressed

We’re looking forward to what promises to be a feast for the eyes, Brighton Museum’s exhibition Lee Miller: Dressed. We’ve spent the summer conserving and mounting the costumes and are now building up to the final days.

In 2021 we worked with Farleys House & Gallery to help them condition check and store their newly-discovered collection of Lee Miller’s clothing, which spanned decades of her fascinating life as model, photographer, surrealist, war correspondent, writer, traveller and cook. Brighton Museum’s exhibition launches on 14 October 2023 and will feature key costumes chosen by curator Martin Pel alongside many of her photgraphs bringing a unique perspective to the stories of her life.

One of the more unusual tasks we’ve faced was padding a mannequin to reflect Lee’s figure during pregnancy. Jamie worked hard to create the right curves ready to mount a gorgeously patterned, recently wet-cleaned, seersucker summer dress that has a wrap-around underdress and a gathered apron outer layer over the top. It seems to us that it is the perfect floaty, cool, comfortable summer dress for all phases of life not just pregnancy. Indeed Lee herself probably wore it over many years, as it dates to the 1930’s but so far the only images found of her wearing it are of her heavily pregnant with son Anthony in 1947.

The double layer construction made from metres of fabric (probably indicating its pre-rationing origins) was challenging to handle and rinse in the bath and required a slightly unconventional way of laying out to dry due to its conjoined at the shoulder construction. Wet cleaning really refreshed the colours and helped to reinstate the seersucker weave effect.

For the mannequin that will be displayed wearing baggy corduroy trousers, Anna made two legs that we attached onto a torso mannequin – one had to be completely straight as the mannequin support pole needed to run up inside but for the other, we needed to introduce a little bit of movement to the other or the figure would have looked too rigid. We did so by slightly bending the other leg which was quite tricky to get it right! Anna used fosshape and a few layers of linen scrim and wheat starch to form the legs (over some fibreglass legs as the intial mould) and then cut and reassembled them with a bent knee … but the leg and particularly the height of the knee were not quite right. So Ania, being a similar height to Lee Miller, offered to hop up onto a pile of books to get her feet in the same position as Lee’s imaginary feet ( on the working height mannequin stand as there will be no base plate when installed in the exhibition). We directed Ania’s leg pose into the required position and then measured and marked Lee’s errant leg and baggy corduroy trousers until they lined up with Ania’s knee. Using these points Anna was able to set to again in reforming the leg shape and lowering the knee.

A few of the long awatied, ready made, fibre glass mannequins underwent radical surgery in the costume mounting studio after they arrived from Proportion London. The tight budget didn’t stretch to entirely bespoke fibre glass mannequins so we had to undertake a bit of surgery to allow period vintage shoes onto some feet and to remove over-perky, high breasts from two mannequins that will have close fitting, 1930’s jersey costumes worn by Lee Miller. The team then set to repairing and reshaping to achieve a more suitable period silhouette to work with.

We can’t wait to mount everything in their final positions next month – stay tuned for the results!