Conservation Department Rises to Challenge Posed by Mardi Gras Costume Collar

An ornate, bejeweled black lace collar displayed in a box on a mannequin form.

When the New Orleans goddess of the mystic krewe of Mardi Gras generously offers to give you her bedazzled royal collar for your Carnival collection, you graciously accept. After all, it could be one of the crown jewels of the collection and a boon for researchers.  

Then you wonder, how do you keep such a unique artifact safe, secure and stored properly for years on end? The sequined, silver-toned collar looks like a priceless, vintage artifact, but in reality, is a costume that’s hot-glue-gunned together. It surely would present perplexing storage challenges. 

Such was the dilemma facing University Libraries when Ohio State alumna Karen Boudrie Greig (broadcast journalism, ’82) offered to donate her royal Mardi Gras costume to University Libraries and its Theatre Research Institute. But a team of experts there were ready to deftly handle the situation. 

It all began when Greig heard about Libraries’ Carnival collection, one of the largest research collections of its kind in the world. She had recently been crowned goddess of the largest all-female Mardi Gras krewe, the Mystic Krewe of Nyx. Reigning atop a float in the Mardi Gras parade, she wore the stunning, sparkling costume, topped with the eye-popping silvery collar. 

Greig reached out to Lesley Ferris, distinguished professor emeritus of theatre and founder of Libraries’ Carnival collection, who in turn connected Greig with the Theatre Research Institute (TRI). The Ohio State group was astounded by the gorgeous collar, along with the rest of Greig’s donation, including her Mardi Gras gown, mask, goddess pendants and bracelets, and more. 

“The collar and costume are gorgeous,” says Beth Kattelman, curator of the TRI. “They help give the picture of what Carnival is about. We use items in our collections in exhibition spaces and with classes, and it’s nice to get a variety of types of pieces. We can bring out books and papers and manuscripts … but it’s also nice to showcase costumes, headdresses, hats and other three-dimensional items.” 

A close-up detail shot at the bejeweled and lacy collar.

The pieces, she added, may look vintage but were designed to enrich the pageantry of the parade. “They are part of a costume and were made to hold up just for the duration of the show. So it’s nice to preserve them long-term for others to see.” 

It was the delicately crafted collar that posed the biggest challenge. “When we accept donations, we consult with Libraries’ conservation folks to be sure the items can be properly stored and transported before we put them in researchers’ hands,” Kattelman explained. “It’s a collaborative effort.” 

Dani Demmerle, then Libraries’ conservation and disaster management coordinator, who admits they have an engineering mind, was ready for the challenge. They spent countless hours–and a few sleepless nights–devising an effective way to store the fragile collar. 

“I definitely had fun with this project, drawing up diagrams and experimenting with solutions. I really leaned into the creative freedom of the project,” Demmerle said. “Of course, I wanted the storage system to be functional, but I also wanted it to look so, so pretty.” 

After much trial and error, they designed and constructed a unique and functional box that would keep the collar safe and secure for storage or transportation. 

Demmerle developed a complex system using hangers, wires, insulation foam, loops, zip ties, draping fabric and a sturdy board to create a frame on which the collar rests. “I’m very proud of how it turned out,” they said. “The frame allows the collar to sit securely and properly, and it also looks a little fancy.” 

Once the frame was perfected, Demmerle designed the collar’s exceptional storage enclosure. “The enclosure itself wasn’t complicated, it’s just absurdly large and wouldn’t fit on any of our worktables. I had to get a little personal with it, sitting on the floor and constructing it inside and out.”   

The storage enclosure is made of sturdy gray whiteboard with padding throughout to protect collar’s fragile, sequined points. “The box is made perfectly to size so that the collar won’t shift at all. The lid can fall back, and the panels of the box go out to the side,” they said. “That way researchers can see all angles of the collar when interacting with it, without removing it from the box.” 

The collar will be stored with other Theatre Research Institute treasures in University Libraries’ climate-controlled, secure storage areas, where temperature and humidity levels are kept constant. That keeps them in top shape for use by researchers and students.  

“Carnival itself is art, and these pieces Karen donated enrich our Carnival collection,” said Lesley Ferris. “To have three-dimensional pieces like the collar and costume provide a unique viewpoint about the ways Carnival articulates an artistic experience. They’re absolutely amazing.”