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.


Sarah W said...

As you say, mirrors would be a good adition. Also displaying the insides of clothing, so you can se how it was constructed, what seams were used etc.

I personally prefer lower class clothing (though I can apreciate the beauty and work gone into high fashion garments), so I'd love it if they were represented more often - after all, most of the people in the past wore much simpler outfits than what is most often displayed.

Cassidy said...

I agree that fully accessorized mannequins are a very good idea for showing how everything went together, but on the other hand, accessories can overwhelm a dress. Sometimes a single dress, or two juxtaposed, are better aesthetically. There should just be more costume exhibitions in general, so that all varieties of display can be used!

Pinterest ... ah, Pinterest. I love it for my own purposes, but it does drive me a little crazy. Tumblr has a similar problem (although I haven't seen any movie costumes labeled as extant garments yet, thank goodness), an I think the attributions/links to the source are even worse there.

Kleidung um 1800 said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your blogpost and found myself nodding the head on almost every line, mumbling „true!“
I’m neither an academic nor an apprenticed seamstress, but I try to do my best on research and I simply love old and sometimes forgotten craftmanship. Doing research means, I’m personally very much dependend on online resources. For example I love the METs zoom-in function and that they offer to study the dress from different some garments are even shown on dressforms!
Oh, the dress forms! They can be very helpful and explainatory when the dressform fits the actual dress...and – this might sound funny – I think it very much helps (online and especially in a museum’s display) when the dressforms have a head (andmaybe a matching bonnet or cap)! Often the headless dressforms mislead our perception, and thus: please, if there’s any information about the original wearer, I would love to know, especially about the age. Yes, some dresses really look tiny, but maybe they have been worn by young adults. Labelling sizes/measurements is another point that is truly helpful.
I love the way real garments and fashion plates come together like in “Napoleon & the empire of fashion”, as in fashion plates you can see how a garment should actually fit! I would also love to have photos of the inside of a garment shown with the dress...the inside view helps so much and is often underestimated.
Luckily some museums are really helpful and supply you with information via email exchange, which is a true bonus.
Yes, exchange! The museum’s curator in my town is very open to share her knowledge and I was even allowed to examine a displayed object. It’s wonderful to see that some curators take us seriously and are interested in a mutal exchange of knowledge. Because we have also gained knowledge: with sewing we’re able to step into the footsteps of our ancestors...we know how long and sometimes labouring it is to hand sew a complete garment, how certain stitches work, how sore the fingers can become and finally how it feels to wear such a dress with all the accessories...
I’m sorry this was such a long comment, but your blog post was so inspiring and simply made me happy :)

Fichu1800 said...

Thank you all for your comments. I am preparing to write to the Fashion Museum in Bath as part of their consultation on the future of the collection.
@ Sarah, I agree with what you say about lower class clothing. Do you think museums should display replicas of this type of clothing as it does not usually survive?
@Cassidy. I agree with your comments. Thank you.
@ Sabine, Thanks for your comments. It is great that you have a good exchange with your local curator.

Scene in the Past said...

I'm late, but I'm with Sarah in really, really wanting to have interior pictures. Just trying to figure out a reasonably common way to join bodice in skirt for a Regency dress has been impossible.

Edelweiss Patterns said...

Yes, it is really marvelous that so many museums are sharing their costume collections online! I have learned so much just from online research that I never could have seen up close in books.

By the way, I'm returning to England for a historical costume tour this September so if you happen to be at the Jane Austen Festival I might see you there!

Happy sewing,


An Historical Lady said...

Really enjoyed this post and your blog as well!
Thanks for your insights and info~