Royal Danish Collections
- A mental walk through
- Assess the piece’s date, construction, materials and state of preservation
- Necessary materials for safe handling, storage, and transportation
- Plan to have time to mount the dress properly for photography
- Pattern taking
- Mounting costume for exhibition
- Helpful sources of information on handling costume
Unlike many other categories of museum objects, costume requires a great deal of handling in order to be stored and exhibited properly. The fabrics involved are fluid and soft, and are meant to be supported on a figure. As museum objects must be treated differently from our clothes at home, this requires training and considerable self discipline, as well as a special knowledge of how to handle both historical and new costume. To work with costume, one should be familiar with social and fashion history, textile techniques, anatomy, textile conservation and exhibition techniques. As textile fibers are easily degraded by light, humidity, and pulling or hanging while stored or exhibited, special care must be taken to prevent permanent, disfiguring and destructive damage. Most important, before touching the museum object for any reason, always mentally ‘walk through’ what needs to be done before it is back in place. Practice ‘thinking before touching’.
- assess the piece
- learn to recognize primary textile techniques (see also Identification of fabrics)
- learn simple identification of textile fibers
- learn what disintegrating textiles look like
- decide which actions are to be taken and in which order
- materials for safe handling, storage and transportation (see also Storing costume and Transportation)
- mounting the garments for exhibition and photography
- pattern taking (see also Pattern-taking)
- exhibition of costume
- helpful sources of information
Before handling costume, mentally ‘walk through’ what needs to be done before it is back in place:
- have clean hands, a clean workspace, sufficient time, good lighting, and the equipment and materials
- assess the garment’s construction, date, materials and state of preservation
- decide what actions need to be taken and in which order: photography, pattern-taking, mounting for exhibition, accessories, exhibition
- gather the necessary materials for safe handling, storage, and transportation
- What information do you have already?
- Do you need more? Who can help you?
- What part of the garment is weakest? Does it require support?
- How can you move it/store it/mount it best?
- Learn what primary textile techniques are and what they look like
- What are the inherent structural strengths and weaknesses of each technique?
- Are the materials strong, weak and/or disintegrating?
- Learn how to do as many techniques as you can, as it is the best way to understand why they were chosen and how they affect the finished garment.
Simple burn tests can often identify fibers used in fabric and threads but should only be undertaken by a conservator, if a single thread can be removed from the object. There are a number of websites which give good advice about conducting a burn test: Fiber Reference Image Library, Threads Magazine: How to identify fabrics with a burn test, Fabric Identification the Burn Test.
Learning to recognize textile fibers in the microscope helps identify fibers and techniques
- Can a small thread be removed for testing or does the identification have to be made without testing?
- What are the structural strengths and weaknesses of each kind of fiber?
- Are the garment’s materials strong, weak and/or disintegrating? Is there visible light damage?
- Are there finishing techniques that need to be protected?
Learn what disintegrating textiles look like - some “damage” is historically important
Consider if the damage you see is a result of the following:
- light damage
- damage from strain and wear
- damage from sweat
- damage from washing/staining/bleeding of dyes
- damage affecting weighted silks
- damage from dirt and use
- Cleaning, conservation and mounting may be necessary
- photography may be desired both before and after treatments
- If special analyses are required, they should be done before any further treatment takes place.
- Decide what method is best; make sure there are enough hands to help
- If moving the garment in a box, make sure it is stabilized so it doesn’t slide around
- If moving a dressed mannequin, support and cover with paper, Tyvek and/or a waterproof outer cover; mannequins can be secured to pallets with G-clamps
- Move packed boxes and mannequins on trolleys when possible - they are heavy and awkward
- Use clean white muslin for packing, covering, carrying. Unpack carefully in case beads or loose pieces have fallen off.
- Make sure the object is labelled, also on each layer of packing and outside the box
- Have a selection of pins of various sizes, woven cotton tape, strong/thin thread in various colors, needles, magnifying glass, flashlight for checking inside the garment
- Find out how the garment is to be shown, for example whether it can be seen from all sides.
- Find out in advance if you need a front, back, or 3/4 view for photography, and if a certain background is required. Take as many shots as possible, including details of important features, as it may be inconvenient, time-consuming and damaging to the garment to mount it for photography again.
- Determine whether the piece should be mounted in the workshop (this is preferable, because you have good lighting, all the proper tools and materials) and then transported to the photographer’s studio, or (less good) transported in a box and mounted on the mannequin in the photographer’s studio
- Make sure studio lights are turned off as much as possible to avoid cumulative light damage to garments
- Your worktable needs to be large enough for the garment and your drawing paper. Work with pencil only.
- Learn how to take a pattern of an historical garment; practice first on something that is not a museum piece.
- Care must be taken that the garment is touched and moved as little as possible.
- Work slowly, systematically, and thoughtfully.
- If the garment is symmetrical, take a pattern of left or right half only to reduce the amount of handling.
- Make notes of all relevant details of cutting and stitching.
- Check measurements by making a toile (a copy in unbleached muslin or other cheap fabric).
Mounting costume for exhibition
- Plan to have time to mount the dress properly, even for “short” exhibitions. Choosing and adapting mannequins requires time, practice and skill.
- Supports can help distribute strain on shoulders of heavy garments
- Some garments can be displayed flat, folded in half on a covered, tilted board
- 2-dimensional exhibition can work if the garment is sturdy to hang on lightly padded edges of photostats and cut-out figures
- Mannequins and supports of padded, covered wire, Ethafoam etc. can help bear the weight of heavy garments
- Accessories may help interpretation - here a top hat and walking stick are attached with almost invisible threads inside the coat’s sleeves
- Costume should always be protected from light and dust in a closed glass case.
- Keeping costume clean is vital, as all cleaning procedures are harmful to historical garments
- Glass should be UV-coated, lighting should be outside the case, and vitrines should not be opposite each other to prevent problems with reflections
- Access to the case must be large enough to receive the clothed mannequins
- The floor of the case must be able to stand the weight of the mannequins and one or more people working with them.
- Materials used inside cases and in support materials must be safe, approved and not giving off harmful gases. The ‘Oddy test is approved for testing safety of materials used in museums.
- Before touching the museum object for any reason, always mentally ‘walk through’ what needs to be done before it is back in place.
- Always practice ‘thinking before touching.
Helpful sources of information on handling costume
Karen Finch, The Care and Preservation of Textiles, London 1985.
Changing Views of Textile Conservation, ed. Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, Getty Institute 2011.
Canadian Conservation Institute, identification of fibers
Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute: How to handle antique textiles and costumes
Resource for fiber images: Fiber Reference Image Library
Australian Dress Register, with excellent articles and videos