Back in the Day: A window of understanding into the past

This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2019 issue of the Winnetka Current as Back in the Day: A window of understanding into the past

By Holly Marihugh

The historic clothing of the Medici family members gives us a rare insight into their lives during the 16th century. Through local resident Mary Westerman, Winnetka has a link to the enormous undertaking of restoring the clothing of those prominent Florentines.

After almost four centuries, the bodies of the first Florentine Grand Duke, Cosimo I, his consort, Eleonora di Toledo, and one of their sons, Garzia de’ Medici were exhumed in 1947. Their burial clothes were removed and lay in a bundle of shapeless fabrics until 1983 when internationally renowned experts painstakingly restored them over 10 years. The massive project laid squarely on the shoulders of the team’s leader, Mary Westerman, a historic textiles and dress conservator.

Now a board member of the Winnetka Historical Society, Westerman grew up attending Winnetka elementary schools and New Trier High School. As a student at the University of Colorado, Westerman landed in Italy for a study-abroad program. Following her undergraduate degree in art history, she earned a master’s in art conservation in Florence. She eventually came to call Italy her home after marrying (in her family’s Winnetka residence) an Italian national, Eugenio Bulgarella.

“Through a series of fortuitous coincidences, after I graduated school, I ended up working at the Pitti Palace in Florence,” Westerman said. “There was a great need for conservation of textiles, and they were setting up the costume gallery at that time, which I became very involved in.”

Conserving and recreating the clothes worn by the deceased Medici family was the crowning experience of Westerman’s professional career. She explains that the conserved relics are now on permanent display at the Pitti Palace.

What Westerman enjoys the most about the art of costume conservation is what the clothing reveals about people.

“You really get a sense of the individual, their size and stature, as well as their tastes,” Westerman said. “Clothing is, after all, one’s second skin. What you put on speaks volumes about who you are because what you wear conveys an unspoken message.”

Westerman is now lending her expertise to the WHS costume collection that she says can be a “gold mine” of information about Winnetkans.

“There about 2,000 artifacts in the collection, which I’m told is one of the largest in Illinois,” Westerman said. “It goes as far back as the 1830s, but the majority of the collection dates from 1890 to about 1950, and it’s still growing.”

The key to the WHS costume collection is that there’s a link to the Village through every item. “They are all things that either Winnetkans wore, had purchased in local stores, or were made in Winnetka,” Westerman says.

The collection preserves military uniforms from WWI and WWII, both Army and Navy. In addition, there are nurse and Boy Scout uniforms, and police and firefighter artifacts. And no costume collection is complete without wedding dresses, of which there are several donated by Winnetkan brides.

Next year, Winnetkans can view the costume collection online.

“We’re looking forward to sharing some of this fabulous collection digitally in 2020 on our website through a very generous donation from the Kemper Educational and Charitable Fund,” WHS executive director Mary Trieschmann said.
Back in the Day is a monthly column by The Winnetka Historical Society.


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