If an item of dress is deemed sturdy enough, it is hung. More than four-thousand objects from the V&A’s fashion collection are stored on a hanger, which is essential for the management of our storage space. As the poet Ben Jonson realised, more (person-shaped) objects can be stored vertically than can be laid out horizontally. The more fragile objects are stored spread out in drawers, where the weight of the garment, which in the case of some of the more elaborate items might be several kilograms, can be more evenly supported.
When the V&A was built, it was not designed with capacity to store any object not on display, so spaces had to be found by hoarding-off galleries, converting attic space and moving pieces off-site. Previously, all of our 20th century menswear was kept in a cramped store just behind the old Textile Study Galleries. As you can see from the images, the ‘wardrobe-style’ (or coffin-like?) storage was hardly ideal for an ever-growing national collection; garments were crowded together and frequently pressed against the wooden sides of the cupboards.
The confined space of a menswear store cupboard. Note the mothball dangling from the lower rail. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
There was also the problem of the swing-down ‘loft’ ladder. It was a feature hated by all fashion curators who had to frequently pick their way down the narrow steps, usually while bearing something valuable. To our collective relief, the store was emptied just over a month ago.
The treacherous stairs, a danger to generations of staff. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“Lord Have Mercy Upon Us”. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Prior to the decant of the store all the objects were photographed, labelled and zipped inside a bag made of tyvek, an inert material useful for conservation. Most were first treated at low temperature (-30°C) to ensure that no pests got a free ride to West Kensington.
A rail of dress ready to move. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
All were then placed chronologically upon rails weatherproofed with polythene. Now, in the Clothworkers’ Centre, they are stored chronologically by garment type, and have finally been given an amount of space appropriate to a collection of such national and international importance.
A few items looking far happier at Blythe House. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion is part of FuturePlan and will open later this year.