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Conservation of Costume Accessories

By Marion Kite

Edited by Stephen Ball

Human clothing has always been accompanied by accessories that range from the functional to the purely ornamental. Many of these can be describes as 'fashion accessories' - costume ephemera that follow a style or trend that is short lived and only fashionable for a time. After their short lives in vogue, such items are often cast aside and many find a place in museum collections, where they can enhance displays of costume or period interiors.

Gloves, hats, umbrellas and spectacles are examples of accessories that appear in both functional and ornamental guises. Some of these are associated with particular crafts or social roles. Other items have little or no function, or their function is secondary to their appearance, and include lace pieces, fans, muffs, scarves, artificial flowers and hair ornaments. Perhaps the most commonly found items are hats, bags, shoes, gloves and fans.

Accessories frequently incorporate the materials found in costumes of the same period or type. Silk, wool and cotton and are main textile components, but many other materials figure in their construction - including plastics, glass (beads), metals, fur, feathers, straw, wood, ivory, paper, wax (flowers), fabric-covered wire, and even beetle wings. Some of these materials may be inherently unstable, or are harmful to other materials in the object or nearby. In particular, fashion accessories are by their nature transient, and there is a tendency to use the very latest - and sometimes unproven - materials without much thought for the object's long term survival.

Fans

There are two main types of fan: the flat or fixed fan, which has been used since ancient times, and the far more recent folding fan. Fixed fans consist of a handle attached to a flexible area or 'leaf', which displaces the air. The flexible areas of folding fans are attached to a frame called a monture. The value of a fan depends on many factors, not least its provenance.

Fans are like many costume accessories in that they are made from a large variety of materials, and are always composite objects. The handle or monture may be of such widely differing substances as ivory, tortoiseshell, metals such as cloisonné - and even heavy iron in the case of Japanese war fans - and every type of plastic. Typical materials for the leaf include, fine kid, vellum, paper, lace, silk, cotton, satin, feathers and woven straw. The usually pleated leaf is joined to the support by some kind of adhesive, and is often printed, painted, embroidered or applied with yet further materials.

Even gentle use places on a fan - the air resistance acting on the leaf surface creates a high load. Open folding fans gently and as infrequently as possible, and only after the fan has been assessed as suitable for this treatment. Avoid sudden movements and theatrical gestures: only Spanish fans are designed to be flicked open. Displayed fans should not be left open for more than four months.

Storage and Display

As always, a good museum environment with stable temperature and relative humidity conditions is essential, with particular attention paid to light exposure - the principal threat to costume items. (This fact sheet should be read in conjunction with the sheet on Costume, where display issues are discussed.) Store items in darkness, and aim for a temperature of around 17°C and relative humidity of roughly 50%.

Physical support is usually an important factor; many accessories are three-dimensional objects at risk from crushing or sagging. Always provide adequate support for fragile and weak objects and their component parts, and avoid stacking or crowding objects in the store.

Hats must not rest on their brims, because in time the crown will sink under the weight of the material or trimmings and cause the hat to distort. Ideally, store hats on a purpose-made support that cushions the brim and gently pads the crown into its intended shape. Or make cost-effective substitutes out of pads and wads of acid-free tissue.

Use the padding approach to maintain the shape of other three-dimensional objects such as bags and shoes. Make slender 'sausages' of tissue to preserve the shape of glove fingers, and push larger pads into the hand space - if gloves are stored flat, in time hard creases may form along the fingers and sides. Tissue wadding and padding should be just firm enough to support the original shape of the object, and never forced in. Excessive force or too much filling puts the object under physical stress, with the attendant risk of distortion and damage

For storage, wrap the supported object in acid-free tissue and store it in a labelled box without stacking. Do not use polythene (polyethylene) in the form of sheeting or bags to store clothing accessories because it retains moisture. Regularly inspect stored items for signs of pest infestation.

Plastics may cause special problems (see the fact sheet on Plastics). Cellulose nitrate objects may degrade, and once the process starts it will accelerate and produce vapours and exudates that threaten surrounding objects. Other types of plastic may become sticky as plasticisers leach out of the compound.

Unstable plastic accessories should be isolated immediately and stored where there is plenty of space and circulating air. Refer these objects (and their removal from the accessory, where they are components) to a specialist conservator as soon as possible, in case stabilisation is an option.

As with all costume items in the museum, accessories should never be worn or subjected to their original uses.

Cleaning and Routine Maintenance

Cleaning issues resemble those for costume in general (see the Costume fact sheet). Some objects may be suitable for gentle brush dusting in association with a filtered vacuum cleaner nozzle, otherwise refer all cleaning and repair problems to a specialist conservator. Costume accessories are often complex objects and can provide equivalently complex cleaning and conservation challenges.

Sources of Information and Advice

A more detailed guide to the practical care of costume and textile collections is:

Robinson, J. and Pardoe, T., An Illustrated Guide to the Care of Costume and Textile Collections, Museums and Galleries Commission, London, 2000.

Sandwith, H. and Stainton, S., The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping (revised edition), Penguin/National Trust, London, 1993.

For more information about private conservation work please contact:

Conservation Register
Tel: 020 7721 8246

Conservation Register (Scotland)
Tel: 0131 668 8668

Copies of this fact sheet can be provided in alternative formats. Please contact Viola Lewis, Information Officer at MLA for further information.

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