Museum dresses green for the holidays

Chantal Ludder, horticulturalist at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, finishes her holiday decoration dress at the museum with a sprig of yew. Photo courtesy of Perry Mathewes

Museum of the Shenandoah Valley’s holiday decoration feature this year is a more organic addition to the gowns already on display there – but this dress only has a week or two of time on the museum lobby floor before it wilts away.

Chantal Ludder, horticulturalist for the museum’s gardens and grounds is the design mastermind behind the green gown, having patched the decoration together with help from other museum staff.

Director of Gardens Perry Mathewes said that Executive Director Dana Evans had found inspiration from photos online and passed them on via email. With the materials easily at the gardens and grounds staff’s disposal, he said they were gathering greenery for the dress shortly after the idea spread.

“Cut! Costume and the Cinema” began a showcase of historical costume seen through film at the museum when it opened in October, featuring a number of showstopping gowns worn by stars like Keira Knightley and Anjelica Huston. Whereas some of the examples of plant material dresses Ludder saw online resembled more modern prom or bridesmaid dresses, she knew she could create a decoration that echoed various designs in the exhibit with some added holiday flair.

“I love historical clothing to begin with – I was mostly thinking, ‘if I could wear any fancy dress, what would I wear?” she said. “It’s a real mix of everything you would see, but nothing too specific.”

Most of the dress is comprised of yew, with a petticoat of hemlock and accents of ornamental grass – all plants from ornamental hedges around the gardens that Ludder said would be pruned later in the winter anyway.

“Yew is great for that type of project; it’s nice and full, it’s got a great color and we have plenty of it,” she said.

Ludder and the other staff teach an annual wreathmaking class around the holidays, so she said they already had plenty of arranging experience needed to make the gown. From gathering and wiring the plants to attaching them to the form, many members of the museum staff lent a hand to dress setup so it would be ready when the museum opened on Tuesday.

Whether future projects bring a more diverse wardrobe of historical dresses or a menagerie of animals to the museum, Ludder said she’s now confident enough in her chicken wire skills to expand on creative decorations next year.

“I’m game for anything anybody can think of,” she said. “Whatever they’ll let me do, I will happily do it.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com