Katia Johansen
Royal Danish Collections




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’.


Before handling costume

A mental walk through

Before handling costume, mentally ‘walk through’ what needs to be done before it is back in place:

Assess the piece’s date, construction, materials and state of preservation

Learn simple identification of textile fibers

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 testFabric 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

Decide what actions need to be taken and in which order:

  • 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.


Necessary materials for safe handling, storage, and transportation

  • 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


Plan to have time to mount the dress properly for photography

  • 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


Pattern taking 

  • 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 




  • 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.

ICON, Institute of Conservation, UK: Care and conservation of accessories and costume

American Institute of Conservation: care of textiles; diverse information.

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

M COSTUME Social network

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