By KATIE WATTS / Towns correspondent
It’s not often one walks by ironing boards in a museum. But in early July, visitors to the Petaluma Historical Museum and Library were doing just that, smelling that fresh-pressed aroma as museum volunteers carefully steamed and ironed delicate cottons, fragile lace, heavy satin and sumptuous velvet under the supervision of Teresa Fröschl.
Fröschl, a longtime museum volunteer, is the curator of the museum’s new exhibit, “I Do: Vintage Wedding Fashions.” Asked for her age, she smiled and said, “I’m old enough to know better than to tell you because if I did you’d say, ‘Go home to your rocking chair.’”
She’s been caring for wedding gowns donated to the museum for about 30 years. “Nobody was doing it so I said, ‘Hey, I can.’”
Some of her earliest memories involve wedding dresses. “My grandma was a very well-known seamstress,” she explained. “She was a widow, thanks to the Mexican revolution, so she made wedding dresses all her life, to support her five children.”
In the early 1920s, Fröschl’s grandmother and the children came to San Francisco, “to be near her brothers.” As a small child, Fröschl remembered, “I would sit underneath her sewing machine, play with scraps of fabric and observe.”
Her grandmother’s skill with fashion and fabric was passed down, first to Fröschl’s mother, who attended design school in San Francisco, and later to Fröschl, who developed a deep interest in vintage fashions. “I always liked museums,” she said. “I used to walk to the DeYoung Museum a lot and was impressed when they had exhibits of historic dresses.”
Over the years, she’s gone to numerous textile conservation workshops, “just because I was interested,” she said. “I absorbed everything.” By the time she attended a workshop presented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “it was fun, but I learned nothing.” She laughs. “I already knew it all.”
So, when it comes to vintage clothing, “I know what I’m talking about.”
How did the museum end up with the dresses? “Many come from Petaluma’s first families,” she explained. “Their descendants donate them. We have about 50, although not all are in the exhibit. And they’re still coming in: last week I got a third-generation dress—it’s been worn three times.”
The dresses, she said, are “not just white, though there are a number of summer cottons,” and she gestured to some mannequins, “but colored fabrics as well: grey, brown, one I’m calling paprika and another that’s aubergine.
“This one,” Fröschl paused before a case, “I call the velvet noodle dress.” It is the elegant wedding gown of Charlotte Edwards, champagne-colored and heavily embellished with sumptuous silk velvet fringe.
Most of the dresses cannot be worn, she said, partly because the fabric is so fragile. “Some of the old silks and satins, we have to have them lying down in cases: their beadwork is beautiful but the fabric is shredding.”
But the other reason the clothes can’t be worn is that the women who did wear them were laced into suffocating whalebone corsets to achieve the hourglass silhouette then dictated by fashion. Fröschl estimated the average measurements of the brides to be 33-20-33. She shook her head. “The women were small and some of these dresses are so heavy.”
Those slender dimensions are one reason there hasn’t been a major show of the gowns: they won’t fit modern mannequins. To display the collection, Fröschl wrote a grant that enabled the museum to purchase Ethafoam—similar to Styrofoam—from which she and other museum workers built special dress forms.
What’s important about this exhibit? Why should people visit? Fröschl paused, then said thoughtfully, “It’s women’s history through fabric. Women had to learn to sew, to make lace, to tat and embroider. Many made a living, supported their families, with these skills.”
Also, she went on, “These dresses have been given to the museum. We have the responsibility of not only caring for them, but making them available for viewing. These items belong to us, as a city.”
“I Do: Vintage Wedding Fashions” is on display at the Petaluma Historical Museum and Library through Sept. 10. Admission: $3 to $5. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, noon to 3 .m. Sundays at 40 Fourth St. Call 778-4398 or visit petalumamuseum.com.