Anthea Bickley
ICOM Costume Committee board member


Costume in our collections cannot be used to tell stories if we do not know what we have, where it is and what condition it is in. We have to know and record as much as possible about every item in our care. Your museum may already have a manual to guide you through these processes. We also have to ensure that this information is readily accessible to everybody who needs it. At the same time it must be held securely so that any personal information held in a database is not available to those who have no right to see it. Finally, do not forget to have a backup copy, also held securely. In a large institution this is probably all done automatically. In a small institution you may need to take regular copies and then make sure that these are held in another building.

Most of the information we need to record is the same for every item in our collections, including costume. There are many databases available which will do this. If you want to know about the units of information you should be recording the Collections Trust in the UK, an independent charity, has produced a comprehensive guide to them called Spectrum. It is freely available worldwide.

There you can sign up for a free licence and then download the guide as a PDF file. Some other countries are partners with the Collections Trust to advance this standard and in some cases to translate it into other languages.

This page on the Collections Trust website explains how to obtain your own copy of Spectrum.

A proper system of documentation gathers together every scrap of information including images and references to outside sources. It will also record the story of the item before it came into the collection, and since it has been there. Take plenty of photographs, and associate each with the record of that item.

It ensures that the object can be identified easily without having to locate it and handle it.

Images help to identify the object easily, and reduces the need to handle it. Your database may be able to display thumbnail images within the record.

Here are some ideas to make sure we collect as much information as possible and record it in a way which makes it easy to retrieve.

What is it?

Sometimes we know exactly what an item is. Sometimes we need to refer to other sources of information to help us. One of the principal ones is the ICOM Costume Committee’s Vocabulary of Basic Terms for Cataloguing Costume.

This is freely available on the internet.

There you will find short descriptions in English, French and German for the various classes of garment, for men, women and children. There are also helpful sketches. It is laid out by the part of the body where it was worn, so it can be used for any kind of clothing from anywhere in the world.

This page on the Collections Trust website shows how to access the Vocabulary of Basic Terms for Cataloguing Costume. When you have selected your language and moved further in you will find it all set out very clearly and logically.

Once you have decided what your item is you can catalogue it either by the description or by the number also given for that entry, or both. Computers search best by numbers, so consider carefully what method you will choose.

This shows one method of using both descriptive and numerical classifications.

Do not forget to record what other people have called this item. This is particularly important for historical and regional names.

Where was it before it came to us?

A garment may have a very long back history. This is sometimes best recorded not in the main data file but in another one relating particularly to this object, with that filename recorded in the main file as a cross-reference. This file could be free text. There might be photographs of it being worn; bills and receipts from when it was made or bought; press cuttings of events. Every available piece of information should be recorded. It will help with identifying, dating and then using the item.

What is it like?

As far as possible all the materials should be identified. Begin with the main ones, and finish with the trimmings. Remember to use today’s names, as well as those contemporary with the item and any regional ones too. (See also Take a Closer Look at Costume, Identifying fibers, Identifying fabrics, Identifying lace and Identifying stitches)

Measure carefully the main parts. Remember to note the units used. (See Pattern-taking)

Describe the main construction of the garment, and then note any particular details. (See Reconstructions)

Describe the position and type of any alterations and repairs, and if possible, note when they were done during its life.

This sleeve has been shortened by taking a large tuck just above the cuff. It seems to have been done when the garment was new.

This dress is very well worn, and has been altered and repaired several times. The bust darts have been let out, and an extra piece of fabric let into the front of the waistband. We cannot tell if this was because the wearer got fatter, or because it was later used for fancy dress.


Describe the position and type of each label. Transcribe it carefully. Add notes. Legislation on the labels required in modern garments varies from time to time and from country to country. This can be a valuable tool for dating as well as on the materials of which it is made.

Where is it?

Record where it is normally stored. Also record every time it is moved, with why, when and where to, and when it comes back again. Keep all of these records in a logical order. It can be very important to know when items have been where in the past, for example if an environmental problem is discovered.

How has it been used?

Record all the details of when and how it has been used. Sometimes this will just be a cross-reference to a separate file for a particular exhibition. Sometimes it will be a note that it was produced for a particular researcher on a particular date – and this might in turn cross-refer to a resulting publication. Sometimes it will be a note that an image of it, already in the museum database, has been used in a particular publication.

Conservation is an important part of this too. Cross-references should be included to the appropriate conservation file. That in turn should provide information on the reason why the work was undertaken, who authorised it and who carried it out.

Who makes and updates the records?

This should be the person responsible for the information. If the information is passed on to another person to transcribe, or to enter in the database, they might not always understand what they are writing. The name of the writer and the date should be inserted for the initial record and then for each addition to the record. Keep all of these additions and alterations. It is often easiest to add new information either before or after the last so that it is clear which is the most recent.

Keeping up to date

This is very important! If a new colleague needs to find a particular item it’s a waste of everybody’s time if the location data in particular is no longer correct. Records have been seen where the storage location refers to a building which no longer exists, although this is an extreme case.

References and sources

Your museum may have its own internal manual setting out how documentation should be done, and by whom. If you do not have one already consider preparing one.

ICOM’s International Committee for Documentation (CIDOC) has produced a comprehensive set of guidelines for all disciplines, published in 1995. The guidelines are available to download from ICOM’s website.

The Collections Trust has a comprehensive guide to the units of information which should be recorded about every museum object, known as SPECTRUM. This is freely available on their website.

ICOM Costume Committee’s Vocabulary of Basic Terms for Cataloguing Costume contains information on classifying any item of costume. It is freely available on the internet in English, French and German.

There are many commercial databases suitable for recording museum objects. You should always try to find one which is Spectrum-compliant. If you have any difficulty finding a suitable database, contact your ICOM national committee as they may have information. The examples shown above are taken from records made in Modes Complete, a British Spectrum-compliant programme available from the Modes Users Association.


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