Wednesday September 21, 2022 | by Sadia Tasnim

EXHIBITION: The Toledo Museum of Art features a rare 19th-century glass dress as a highlight from its vaults

Despite it's fragility, the beauty of glass has proved an irresistible allure for the fashion world since ancient times, and the material today can be found in everything from accessories to complete ensembles. One need look no further than the Glass Art Society Fashion Show to see how contemporary artists ingeniously incorporate glass into wearable sculptures that are a showstopper at the artist conference. Evidence of the enduring appeal of mixing glass and fashion is currently on view at the Toledo Museum of Art is presenting its very own glass dress, a Libbey creation from the 1893 World’s Fair with a rich history and perhaps an uncertain future. 

A model wearing the first Libbey glass dress and holding a glass parasol. photo: Toledo Museum of Art Archives

The Libbey glass dress is just one of many important historic works being featured in the Toledo Museum of Art’s "State of the Art: Revealing Works from the Conservation Vault" exhibition, which covers an extraordinarily wide timespan from 1500 to 1990. Toledo Museum archivist Julie McMaster, working with assistant conservator of textile-based collections Marissa Stevenson, dove into the history and preservation of the Libbey dress as well as the museum’s conservation and fundraising endeavors in a video call with the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet.

One of only two dresses created in the early 1890’s, the dress from TMA’s vault is the only one that exists in its complete form, while the bodice of the second dress has been lost to time. The first dress was on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the main attraction at Libbey Glass Company’s pavilion, while the second was created for princess Eulalia, the then Infanta of Spain after she visited the pavilion and was enamored with the original dress. 

Princess Eulalia's custom Libbey glass dress. photo: Toledo Museum of Art Archives

Crafted from fiberglass threads spun on a wheel very similar to a wool wheel used in traditional textile weaving, the fabric of the Libbey dress was very much a fabric, and not the coiled glass strands that may come to mind when one envisions a glass dress. Paired with the work of a seamstress from New York, the glass fabric created in Ohio was sewn into the garment that fascinated attendees to the World’s Fair. It is the combination of silk and glass that makes the Libbey dress a challenging work to preserve and repair, with both mediums prone to degradation over time due to the shattering of the silk and glass disease, respectively. According to Stevenson, there is still much research and analysis to be done on the dress before actual work can be done on it, much like many of the pieces from TMA’s conservation vault that will be featured in the exhibition.

Diane Wright, TMA's senior curator of glass and contemporary craft, connected the dress to the history of Toledo Museum of Art, itself, adding to the urgency of its conservation needs, “The founding of our museum is deeply entwined with the Libbey Glass Company and the growth of industrial glass in the Midwest at the turn of the century," she said. "The conservation of works like the Libbey dress allows us to develop broader transhistorical narratives within the larger presentation of TMA’s collection that pay homage to where we’ve come from and where we’re going.”

Featuring paintings, textiles, sculptures, metalworks, and works on paper spanning four centuries, the "State of the Art" exhibition is part of the TMA's efforts to give a platform to the conservation work that goes into preserving fragile and historically significant works as well as to raise funds for said conservation work. As part of this fundraising plan, visitors to the museum are given the opportunity to “Adopt an Artwork”, choosing from 17 different works that are in need of financial support. There is also a crowdfunding campaign open to the community at large.

For more information on the exhibition and how to support the museum's conservation work, visit their website

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.