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A flair for fashion – and history

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By Karen Zautyk
Observer Correspondent 

KEARNY –

Holding center stage at the Kearny Museum is a display of feminine fashions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The costumes have been there for awhile, but they’ve never looked as lovely as they do today.

And that has everything to do with a 20-year-old Kearny woman who gives new meaning to the words “diligence” and “dedication.”

We were introduced to this historical fashionista by Sandra McCleaster, a museum board member, who wanted people to be aware of the exceptional work the young lady had done.

Her name is Gabriela Salvador. A lifelong township resident and a 2012 graduate of Kearny High School, she is currently a student at William Paterson University in Wayne. Last summer, as part of her honors minor in the humanities, she invested her talents and energies in restoring the costume collection.

The finished product is impressive — but what makes it even more so is the fact that, as a clothier and fashion researcher, Salvador is entirely self-taught.

The styling saga began almost by chance a couple of years back, when Salvador came to the Kearny Public Library to return some books. Library Director Josh Humphrey (whose children she used to babysit) was there, and she asked if she could take a peek at the museum, located on the building’s top floor.

Her attention was drawn immediately to the clothing, and she realized that something was wrong. The materials, especially the heavy silks, were deteriorating. “The mannequins were modernsize,” she said, “and the dresses were for figures that had been corseted and small. There was too much stress on the fabric.”

She knew she could give the clothing a longer life, so she “wrote up a little plan” and presented it to the Museum Committee, which approved her project.

“The 1920s flapper dress had the most damage,” Salvador said. Because of the too-large mannequin “and the heavy beading on the thin silk, the shoulders were shredding.”

Today, the repaired dress is displayed flat, in a case, with “the correct accessories,” Salvador noted. These include an aigrette, which is one of those feather-topped headbands you see on the ladies in “Boardwalk Empire.” Around the dress’ hem are hundreds of strands bearing thousands of minuscule beads.

These had been woefully tangled, and were untangled, one-by-one, by Salvador.

“The 1906 wedding dress was particularly distressing,” Salvador recalled. “It had been displayed on a wicker mannequin, and the wicker was wearing away at the silk and the lace.”

Salvador bought a styrofoam mannequin and carved it with a knife to fit the proper proportions of the dress. Then there was the posture. In 1906, ladies wore corsets that gave an S-bend shape to the body. Salvador recreated that posture and added a petticoat to protect the fabric, “and make it strong and help give off the correct shape.” It’s that kind of detailing that is the hallmark of her work.

She is still working on an 1870s bustle dress. This 21st century woman actually made a bustle herself “to help show off the long train of the dress.”

What piqued Salvador’s interest in antique clothing?

A dislike of history.

At school, “I used to not like history,” she admitted. “But then I realized there was a correlation between what people were wearing in paintings and photographs and what was going on politically and economically at the time.

“I started researching more history and art. And I always loved fashion. I realized I could teach myself how to sew and then recreate what I saw in the paintings.”

And so she did.

She began sewing by hand. Her first completed work was an interpretation of the “Alice in Wonderland” dress from the Tim Burton movie. She combined patterns and found the right fabric and worked on the dress for two weeks straight, getting up at 6 a.m. to make sure she’d finish it it time for its debut. Which was a special occasion — a costume party to mark her 17th birthday.

“My parents [Dorinda and Baltazar Salvador] bought me a sewing machine when they realized this was not going to be a phase,” she said, with a smile.

She also began reading antique sewing manuals and learning about the fabrics used way back when. And she has become proficient in vintage sewing techniques, such as French seams and the use of organza facing.

Although, she now has that sewing machine, Salvador did most of the Kearny Museum work by hand and on site. (The exceptions were the new petticoats.) From June through August of 2013, she’d arrive with cotton gloves, needles and thread, scissors, etc., along with a notebook to record progress and a camera to record tears and stains that needed fixing.

“It’s still a continuing project,” she noted. “I had a lot of fun with it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be finished. I think I will always be improving on it. I want to preserve it for future generations in Kearny.

“It’s important, especially for children, to see the clothing, and the changes in style, and what these represent.”

We mentioned that Salvador is studying at William Paterson. Her major?

Journalism, with a minor in public relations.

Combine that with fashion, and . . . move over, Anna Wintour?

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