Conservation of a World Wrestling Entertainment Costume (Podcast 58)
Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Services’ National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Alison Castaneda, Conservator at the Textile Conservation Workshop of South Salem, New York. In this episode Alison is talking about a recent treatment to a WWE wrestling costume.
Church: Alison, you had a very interesting poster here at AIC entitled “Adhesive Smackdown: Consolidating a Synthetic Leather Wrestling Costume.” Tell us a little bit about first of all, about what you do and where you work and then what was this project about.
Castaneda: Sure. Well I work at the Textile Conservation Workshop in South Salem, New York. I have been in textile conservation for about five years now. After graduate school, I trained there and I learned a lot. A Few years ago we got a call from the World Wrestling Entertainment. They had an outfit from Shawn Michaels, who is in the Hall of Fame, and they did not know what to do with it. It was synthetic leather, it was flaking really badly, it had been stored in a plastic Tupperware for many years so they brought it out and we tried to untangle all the chains, all the elaborate crosses and male symbols and finally we found just this really degraded synthetic leather chaps and top. So we were trying to figure out what we should do with it and we realized the first thing was to find out what sort of synthetic leather it was.
With some research and some testing, the Biostine Copper Test to be precise, we determined that it was polyurethane. Now there are two types of polyurethane, polyurethane ester and polyurethane ether. By boiling some of the flakes found in the box and sodium hydroxide for thirty minutes, we found that it was polyurethane ester. With that knowledge we started looking into previous conservation treatments and it turns out that a lot of polyurethane ester sculptures have been conserved in Europe and they’re using a lot of different adhesives but Impranil DLV and Plextol B500 seem to be the most successful. So using that research and also some of the other employees there, Mary Kaldany in particular is very knowledgeable in adhesives. She suggested I might also want to try gelatin and B72. So we bought some lengths of nylon fabric and we sprinkled the little flakes onto this nylon fabric and we tested the adhesives using the ultrasonic nebulizer. Now that broke up the adhesive into very, very tiny atomic particles so it would seep through the flakes and adhere them and not just rest on the top. We chose the nylon fabric because testing the piece that came in, we found that it was the polyurethane ester foam adhered to the nylon fabric substrate.
So with the tests, we then had everything adhered and we wanted to see how well they were adhered. We used a blower, a brush, shook it a little, tried to move it with our fingers and we found that the Impranil DLV definitely adhered the flakes the best. So this is a polyurethane based adhesive so it makes sense that you would want to use it on polyurethane synthetic leather. Once we found that out, we vacuumed the costume. The structure of the foam with the nylon substrate then slightly expanded the foam layer very thin and then the embossed skin layer on top, so where the skin layer had fallen away there was just some powdery foam. We weren’t interested in preserving that. It wasn’t what the piece would have looked like; it was basically just adding dirt and texture and drawing in environmental pollutants. So we vacuumed that part up, the part where the skin layer was left. We kept it and then we sprayed the Impranil DLV in a 22% solution with the ultrasonic nebulizer. It adhered pretty nicely. Of course it’s not going to bring back the flakes that have already completely detached but it will keep anymore from falling off.
We then packed it up in an archival box, tied all the chains in place and hoped that they wouldn’t be swinging back and forth knocking into the flakes we just so time consumingly re-adhered and we gave it back to the WWE who was very happy and they have just brought us three more costumes for us to conserve in the same manner.
Church: In addition to the skin, did you have to do any conservation treatment to the chains and the charms hanging from them?
Castaneda: Yes, actually. When the polyurethane degraded, it becomes very tacky and it sticks to the metal aspects. This costume also had mirrors so it was on the mirrors and using a dilate solution of ethanol, we wiped it off with some swabs and some mechanical action. They polished up quite nicely.
Church: What’s the age of this costume, do you know?
Castaneda: It’s not too terribly old. I think it’s from the late eighties. They seemed a little unsure. They did have records but they weren’t looking into them for this purpose. I think that’s the time of Sean Michaels.
Church: What is the future for this costume?
Castaneda: It’s too degraded to ever be displayed. So they just wanted to keep it in their archives, in their storage units, and I think for the most part the costumes they’re bringing us are set for long term storage, not to be displayed. I think they mostly try to display costumes that don’t need conservation as of yet. But polyurethane synthetic leather is a material that just naturally degrades. It basically has such inherent vice that air, moisture; anything will cause it to degrade over time.
Church: So the three they brought you now, do you know anything about those?
Castaneda: They’re actually all Shawn Michaels.
Church: Oh, okay.
Castaneda: Yes, they were from giant wrestling festivals, they’re yearly events that they use for; I’m not sure what they’re called actually. They are something else. One looks like a take on a gladiator’s outfit, another is somewhat zebra like and the third is red synthetic leather with black chains everywhere and the gentleman in charge of the archives told me that two sisters have been designing these costumes since the start. They got their start when one of the sisters had a crush on Shawn Michaels and mailed him a costume that she made just because she liked him and he was such a fan, he asked that the WWE take them on as staff costumers.
Church: Do they design just for Shawn Michaels or others as well?
Castaneda: No, they’ve branched out. They do all the costumes now.
Church: Are they still using synthetic leathers?
Castaneda: It seems like yes.
Church: So there will be a lot of work in the future?
Castaneda: Yes, absolutely.
Church: So what other projects are you working on at the textile workshop?
Castaneda: We have got quite a bit of modern artwork now. We’ve been lucky enough to have some Matisse silkscreens. We’ve gotten a fabric panel from the Modern Artist Blinky Palermo. Other aspects of older textile art, we do a lot of silk embroideries, silk paintings, I specialize in the costume conservation and right now we’re working on a 1920’s English court gown, very extravagant, a long train, big feather headdress, fans, it’s quite beautiful but we also get a lot of flags. Those are always popular.
Church: I’m sure it’s always something new. It sounds like a huge variety of materials to work on.
Castaneda: Yes. Textiles are really in everything. You don’t realize how much they are.
Church: And where did you go to school? What did you study?
Castaneda: I went to FIT’s program in textile conservation. They also have a branch of curatorial but I love working with my hands and sewing so I stuck with the conservation track.
Church: Well thank you for talking to us and we’re excited to see more of the WWE outfits come out of conservation and hopefully one day be on display. So thank you for talking to us.
Castaneda: Thank you.
Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.