Flight and fashion go hand-in-hand. With the advent of commercial flight, airlines seized the opportunity for their crews to look impeccable! Airline uniforms expressed the values and trends of the times. While fashion accessories may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the National Air and Space Museum, the collection captures the diversity and playfulness of flight crew dress across the decades. For visitors to see these treasures, conservators in the Museum’s Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory are preparing the accessories for their upcoming display in the reimagined gallery America by Air, scheduled to open in fall 2022.
Accessories for a flight crew uniform can include ties, gloves, neckerchiefs, and belts, among other things. But some of the most common items are hats and shoes. As styles changed, so did the appearance of these accessories. The reserved early women’s uniforms of the 1930s gradually morphed into the loud, vibrant outfits of the 1960s. Conversely, menswear had subtler shifts in their accessories and uniform styles.
Regardless of age or function, all accessories required conservation examinations and treatments to prepare them for display. The hats and shoes had a variety of condition issues including failed adhesives, degraded plastic elements, cracked faux leather, corroding copper alloys, creases, and wrinkles. Please click through the case studies below to see what was done to stabilize several artifacts slated for exhibit.
While a conservation treatment can stabilize an object, for long-term preservation it is necessary to provide the object with adequate support to prevent damage. Hats and shoes may not weigh very much, but gravity can cause significant damage over time if objects are not properly stored or mounted. As the renovated America by Air gallery will have many hats and shoes, inserts were fabricated out of archival materials to preserve each artifact’s shape. The inserts will prevent sagging or deformation over time.
All inserts were created with removal in mind. A poorly designed insert or one made of unstable materials can sometimes be difficult or impossible to remove as objects and inserts age. This is especially important for shoes where the leather can stiffen and access to the interior is often restricted. For open-topped shoes such as pumps, custom padded forms with Ethafoam cores and articulated toes are the typical approach. But for shoes that are only open around the ankle or calf such as boots and oxfords, multi-piece inserts are necessary. On each of the insert’s pieces, “tails” of twill tape were attached so in the future, the toe insert parts can be easily removed without unlacing or unzipping the shoe. Check out the diagram below to see how these multipiece inserts fit within a boot.
With the proper care and inserts, these shoes and hats are now ready for display. If you love fashion and want to see these shoes and hats in person, be sure to visit the Museum’s America by Air exhibit when it opens in fall 2022!