Making copies of museum garments
Katia Johansen and Mette Vejgaard Petersen
Royal Danish Collections
What resources can a museum offer if you want to make a copy or reconstruction of a garment? Copies of historic clothes are popular for those working in films, theater, re-enactment groups, cosplay and others. If you are inspired to make a copy or reconstruction from a museum garment, how can you get usable patterns and materials, as well as learning how to sew the special seams that makecopies of historical clothing look genuine?
- When does a museum want to make a reconstruction or copy?
- Time frame
- What happens to copies afterwards?
- What resources can a museum offer?
- Mette Vejgaard Petersen: Reconstruction of the wedding dress of Mette Bagge Kiær, 1766
- Katia Johansen: A new “old” costume for Manneken-Pis, ca 1660
- Katia Johansen: Dress in Tizian’s “Lady in White”, ca. 1560
- Mauritia Kirchner, Reines des Centfeuilles: Historical costume reproductions (see also: http://www.historical-costumes.com/index.html)
- Jane Malcolm-Davies, ed.: The Tudor Child: Clothing and Culture 1485 to 1625
- when the original piece is too fragile or too important to display
- If an original garment is missing an important part (sleeve, overskirt, collar, etc.) which needs to be recreated in order for the garment to have the right silhouet and be properly understood, a copy might be made. But the museum must be careful to inform visitors what parts are genuine and which are new, so they are not misled. Always mark the reconstructed piece with a label inside ("sleeve reconstructed 2005") so it will not be mistaken for original in future.
- for educational purposes – for teaching children about historical costume, how it was made, how many pieces were worn, how one needed help to dress, etc.
- staff, guides and docents sometimes dress in period costume in museums to help interpret and present the museum’s exhibits. These clothes are usually made by outside suppliers, as it is complicated and expensive to make period clothes to fit a variety of staff.
- making a copy is also an excellent way to study both textile technology and costume and fashion history. Observing how a garment is cut, stitched and tailored helps in understanding our cultural history. Some ways of cutting patterns and sewing parts together are so distinctive that they can help date garments and indicate where they were made.
- artists and craftsmen may enjoy using historical garments, either existing or from paintings, as inspiration for their own work (as example the artist Isabella Borchgrave, Belgium, who recreates historical costume in paper)
- if the museum is concerned about how a copy will be used (for example, commercially), it is wise to make a contract. Usually museums can offer help with patterns – if they have them – for personal, private and educational use.
Many of the original fabrics are no longer made: substituting modern materials that look similar is not enough for a good copy. Will your copy need just to look right, or is it important that it feel and move right (which also require correct underwear and fabrics with the right drape and weight)? You need to know if the costume is to be worn or just shown before you begin. If it is to be worn, it will need cleaning, which will influence your choice of materials and sewing techniques.
- Colors today are also different, as today’s chemical dyes are often stronger and sharper than historic, faded dyes. Optical white, which makes white colors blindingly so, is a new invention. White in the 1700s was more like what we today call off-white or beige.
- Fabrics: Real silk drapes, handles, sounds, and feels different from polyester. This may or may not be important in a reconstruction.
- Fulled woolen cloth and fustian (part linen and part cotton or wool) were heavy-duty fabrics that aren’t made commercially any more.
- Lace: it’s best not to use original lace, which may be valuable and will not stand up to washing and cleaning if the copy is to be worn. Reproductions and machine-made will have to do.
- Embroidery: you won’t be able to do it nearly as well as the embroidery on an historic garment, which may have been embroidered by a professional who learned from an early age and worked a whole life just with embroidery. Consider alternatives like printing, drawing or projection (showing a picture of an embroidery as a slide on the finished, plain reproduction in white).
- Accessories, orders, medals and jewelry may be essential to present an historic garment correctly. New costume jewelry is often too shiny, but can be patinated.
Your expenses will be determined by your level of ambition. Bear in mind that good quality fabrics are always expensive, and the work itself in cutting, sewing and embroidering is very time-consuming.
Your deadline will determine how much time you can spend on each of the following important aspects: find a model, make or adapt a pattern, find fabrics and decorations, make a toile, made adjustments, cut and sew. If you are doing it for the first time, it will take much longer than you imagine. Finding the best resources and suppliers also takes time.
Copies and reconstructions won’t become museum objects in our time – and even very old copies are problematic for museums. Good quality reconstructions, with complete documentation, can be valuable in educational departments. The documentation should include information about who made the garment, for what purpose, how it was made, a list of materials and source material as well as pictures of it “in action”. A reconstruction must always carry a label with the date it was made, so it is not mistaken for a museum object sometime in the future.
Enthusiastic amateurs may require more guidance and supervision than a museum can provide. On the other hand, museums are the guardians of our cultural heritage and are responsible for sharing this information – if it can be done without damaging the objects. Amateurs with special interests sometimes contribute valuable new insight which busy museum staff do not have the time to concentrate on.
Museums don’t usually have patterns of very many of the garments in their collection. Taking a pattern (linkto article on pattern-taking) is time-consuming and specialized work. However, when a pattern has been made, it reveals so much information about the object that it becomes part of the object’s important primary documentation. It reveals exactly how the garment was made, altered and worn. Not all this information is necessarily required for making a reconstruction, depending on the situation and certain discretionary or security concerns.
Patterns and photographs that can be shared with the interested public will help save wear and tear on the objects and time from the staff.
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