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Caring for & Wearing Historic Costumes

A historic costume stored in an box, with acid-free tissue.

A historic costume stored in an box, with acid-free tissue.

The best way to store textiles is to lie them flat in a box or drawer using acid-free tissue to cover them. Limit folding as much as possible, but where necessary, follow the lines already in place, for example, seam lines in a costume. Use pads or sausages of acid-free tissue to soften folds and to support areas such as sleeves and shoulders.

If the costume is strong and in robust condition, it can be hung on hangers padded to fit the garment. You can either buy padded hangers or make your own. Wire hangers should not be used because they concentrate the weight  and stress on a very small area, causing distortion and tears. Even padded hangers are really not entirely suitable for very heavy costumes, or pieces that are knitted, heavily beaded or bias-cut.

If the skirt section of a dress is very heavy, you can stitch tape loops into the waist band. These go over the hanger and help support the weight of the dress. If a dress is very long, you can drape the bottom over a second hanger with a padded bar and place the whole lot into a cotton lawn bag. Hung costume needs lots of space around it so that it won't be crushed or distorted.

Wearing historic costume & dress

Magenta taffeta costume, France, c. 1869. Museum no. T.118-1979

Magenta taffeta costume, France, c. 1869. Museum no. T.118-1979

If you value your costume collection, and wish to preserve its historic and monetary value, you should not wear it. Historic clothing was usually tailored to fit its original owner. Although a modern wearer may seem to be the same general size, we are in fact of varying shapes and sizes, so, parts of the garment will not fit well. Apart from this, average body shapes and the way we dress have changed, for example, many clothes were meant to be worn with undergarments that supported the fabric and helped define its shape.

The poorer the fit on the modern wearer, the more stress is placed on the fabric and seams, and the more likely it will be damaged. Social mores have also changed, for example, at one time it was unseemly for a woman to raise her arms above shoulder height. Dress from the 18th century reflects this, and the wearer could not raise their arms higher without tearing the dress.

Wearing costume for social occasions or historic re-enactments has an inherent risk that the garment will be soiled or stained with oils from the skin (sebum), sweat, deodorants, food or drink. Historic textiles have a limited tolerance for cleaning, so the more a garment is worn, the less likely it will survive. Even the action of dressing and undressing can put the textile under considerable strain.


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