Friday, 1 February 2013

Some thoughts on Studying and Producing Historical Clothing and Costume

Display at the Museum of Costume, Bath UK

Nobody can deny the pleasure which you can gain from studying original examples of historical clothing and accessories. Clothes are tactile and three dimensional and they appeal to the senses on many levels through colour, design and form. When they are displayed well you can almost get a sense of the person who might have worn the garment. But they can also touch our emotions.  When I see a beautifully crafted garment I feel happy and admire the quality and craftsmanship. Sometimes though, I feel sad as the person who originally wore the garment is long dead and their time has passed. In modern life we would never have the opportunity to wear such opulent garments day to day and some of the skills and techniques employed by tailors and seamstresses are lost in time. I also regret that some of the quality of materials, trims and buttons are no longer available. The skills to produce such items have disappeared or there is simply no market to produce these on a commercial scale.

However, things are changing in a positive way.  More and more people are recreating historical clothing and appreciating the importance of studying original garments. I was amazed by the variety of wonderful projects taking place in the Historical Sew Fortnightly hosted by Leimomi of ‘The Dreamstress’. This rise in production of historical clothing is fuelling a growing market in suppliers who are willing to produce historically accurate accessories, fabrics and notions at an affordable price. I remember when I was studying over ten years ago, it was almost impossible to get a spoon busk for a corset. Now it is not an issue.  Even the problem of affordable historical shoes to complete the look is being by addressed by suppliers such as Lauren at ‘The American Duchess’ with her successful line of footwear.

I hope that academics and museum professionals appreciate and recognise the depth of research that is being undertaken and the specialist knowledge that is gained by many from a non- academic background who are working towards creating a historical garment in an accurate way.  I continue to be astonished and inspired by the results of some of my fellow bloggers in their quest to reproduce a historically accurate garment.  Perhaps the way garments are displayed in museums should be addressed in order to be more dynamic and help those who are wishing to study a garment in order to recreate it? I appreciate that a museum has to appeal to a general audience as well as specialist visitors but surely a better display will inspire all visitors and make the collection more appealing? Placing mirrors behind garments and having display cases which you can walk around would all help. Also displaying the garment with correct accessories would help visitors to appreciate the entire look of a particular period. Seeing just a collection of accessories taken out of context from their original function can be confusing.

Dress detail Metropolitan Museum database

Whilst original historical garments inspire reverence and respect we should never lose sight of the fact that these are real clothes and were worn by real people. People have experienced life, death, joy and sadness and a whole spectrum of other emotions and life experiences whilst wearing these clothes.  To some these historical clothes may appear as relics of the past but to me and many others they offer the opportunity to experience a kind of time travel through recreating them accurately. It is not only about the process of discovery when recreating a garment but also how it makes you feel when you wear it.  Once you start wearing your historical creation it is incredible how you are instantly aware of the difference in your movement, posture and general bearing. In turn this helps to inform you about other aspects of history such as why 18th century furniture has a particular design so that it can accommodate a lady wearing hoops or a pannier. Also the practical problems of wearing dresses with trains and why they appear often in satire because they were being stepped on at crowded balls and parties.
Researching on the internet has also revolutionised the way in which we study historical clothing. Many museums have databases of their collections online. This is a wonderful opportunity to see garments in collections worldwide and those that are not currently out on display. I recently found the Malmaison costume app very useful when I was recreating the court dresses for the event last year. It was free and I was able to zoom in on many  details.

 However I would recommend always cross referencing and checking sources from sites such as Pinterest as I have recently seen many images that have inaccurate descriptions and in particular movie costumes that have been described as actual historical garments. However these sites can help you to do more thorough research by being able to compare a range of garments from a particular historical period rather than looking at one garment in isolation.
I would be interested to hear from readers of this post about their experiences and discoveries whilst researching historical clothing and how they think resources for research and museum displays could be improved.