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Conservation of Costume Collections

By Ann French, Barbara Heiberger and Stephen Ball

Many museum collections include articles of clothing, both as individual objects and complete costumes. Although historic costumes sometimes achieve high prices at auction or among collectors, the museum value of these various textiles lies in their association with a person, place, event or period, or in their materials and construction.

Most of the clothing in UK collections dates from the middle of the eighteenth century to the present day. Some clothing and textiles have survived from earlier or archaeological periods, usually through a combination of fortunate circumstances, but these rare objects are the preserve of the specialist collection and are outside the scope of this fact sheet.

Second-hand clothing and garment recycling are nothing new. Before the present age of machine-made, ready-to-wear items, ordinary clothing was made at home and routinely required. Worn out or unfashionable clothes were taken apart and cut up, and anything that was not to the less fortunate, the rag box or the 'rag and bone man'. Apart from lucky survivals, or remnants in special textile objects such as the rag-made rugs of the nineteenth century, very little of this clothing remains.

Costumes and clothing that survive tend to be special items handed down from generation to generation. Collections therefore contain a high proportion of wedding dresses, evening gowns, christening robes and uniforms. Some
older twentieth century clothing has found its way back into everyday wear through 'retro' fashion shops and the clothing racks of charity shops, with the result that museums may receive items originally from the 1920s, say, that have endured a second life in the modern world with its sophisticated cleaning regimes.

Materials and Construction

The textile components of a costume usually fall into one of three categories:

  • protein (silk and wool)
  • cellulose (cotton, linen and ramie)
  • synthetic (such as viscose, rayon, nylon and polyester)

Synthetic fibres were commercially available from the end of the nineteenth century, but are relatively rare before the middle of the twentieth. One early synthetic that may be found is 'art silk', a silk-like rayon that first appeared early in the twentieth century, but most examples date from the synthetics revolution of the post-war period.

It is natural to think of clothing in terms of textiles, but most costume items use a surprising number of other materials including glass, ceramics, plastics, metals, wood and leather for buttons, fasteners and beads; gelatine and plastics for sequins; leather for trimmings and

reinforcement; and whalebone stiffening in bodices and corsets. Each of these accessory materials has its own care and conservation requirements (see especially the fact sheets on Plastics, Ceramics and Glass and Polished Metals), but an equally important factor is the effect that they have on the adjacent textiles.

The fact sheet on Flat Textiles offers guidance on general care issues affecting simple textiles, but you will probably wish to refer costume items - which are essentially composite objects - to a specialist conservator for assessment and care advice. A conservator first examines each garment to identify the component materials and their individual conditions, and considers how the materials will continue to age and interact.

Clothing is almost always held together by some sort of sewing - in other words, by the friction between the materials and a textile thread woven through them. In turn, the textiles and threads themselves also depend on friction to keep them together, for example through the warp and weft of woven fabrics or between the individual strands of yarn. As soon as the materials in the textile or thread begin to degrade, the integrity of the whole fabric is threatened as friction declines and the threads stretch and slip over one another. Eventually, fabrics and garments lose shape and come apart.

Finishes and Dyes

There is an extra dimension to clothing beyond its constituent textiles and associated materials: its appearance depends on a whole range of colourants and finishes, some of which may speed up the deterioration of the textiles. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to discover what dyes and finishes are present. One familiar finish for domestic linens and clothing is starch, which may appear to be 'traditional' and thus harmless but remains in starch acts as a food source for bacteria, mould and insects, and may produce mould stains that show up years after the object was put away clean.

Dresses made from about 1890 to 1915 are often lined with silk bulked out by tin salts during manufacture. These linings are prone to sever splitting, and the weighting chemicals eventually cause the silk to self-destruct; exposure to light speeds up the process. Conservators can do nothing to stop this damage, but it can be slowed if handling and light exposure are reduced to a minimum.

Dyes come from a variety of sources: early vegetable dyes were joined by azo and other synthetic colourants as the nineteenth century progressed. The effects of light are varied and not uniform: some dyes fade extremely quickly or change colour, whereas others are more persistent. This usually means that light exposure causes a change in colour balance as well as simple fading, and sometimes the changes in the dyes accelerate the disintegration of the textile. Once a dye begins to change, nothing can bring the colour back.

Storage and Display

Display and storage methods must make protection from ultraviolet light and other light sources an absolute priority. All textiles are damaged by exposure to light, which represents the biggest threat to their long-term existence. Silk is the most easily damaged fabric, but prolonged exposure causes changes in all fibres. Deterioration eventually betrays itself as the textile weakens or fades, and in extreme cases fabrics split or lose all colour.

Textiles respond to changes in the surrounding temperature and relative humidity by shrinking or swelling. Unstable or extreme conditions over along period may cause the materials in clothing to crack, break away or become permanently deformed. Very damp conditions also promote mould growth, and dust can be a problem (see the section on Cleaning, Handling and Everyday Care below).

Strong, stable suits or coats may be hung on a wooden hanger padded with polyester wadding wrapped in a clean cotton covering. Never use wire hangers or flameproofed padding. However, the weight of hung garments introduces a downward loading that stresses fabrics and stitching, which rules out hanging as a safe storage technique for many historic costumes. Objects most at risk from hanging are fragile and heavily decorated fabrics, and materials cut on the bias (diagonally across the weave, like many 1930s dresses).

Pack all other garments into clean sturdy cardboard boxes, with plenty of acid-free tissue paper lying underneath and over the top. Use rolls of tissue to pad out folds, and avoid sharp changes in direction that could settle as damaging creases. The larger the box the better, as this reduces the number of folds required. Boxes are easy to store and label, and protect objects from light, dust and excess handling.

Always use clean acid-free tissue and boxes of conservation quality (see the Conservation Materials fact sheet). This may mean the replacement of old wrappings: for example, the blue tissue paper traditionally used in the garment trade to store white textiles may be acid and prone to shed blue dye. Assess all discarded wrappings and labels in case they have some intrinsic value and should be retained in storage. Wrap tissue around decorations and fasteners to keep them away from fabrics. If this is not possible and problems are evident (for example, corroding metal buttons are staining a dress or uniform), then consult a specialist conservator immediately.

Regularly check all stored costumes, textiles and adjacent areas for mould, moths or carpet-beetles, especially at times of the year when pests are active. Look for signs of insects, including frass, dead adults, larval cases, and any new damage. Wool, fur and feathers are especially vulnerable, but pests may attack silk and sometimes make hole sin other materials to reach their target food source. Call a specialist as soon as infestation is suspected, and resist the temptation to use commercially available remedies for treatment or prevention. Pest specialists now have a variety of non-chemical techniques at their disposal.

Most methods of display, such as dummies and frames, result in some damage through physical stress and exposure to light. Limit display times and periods, and avoid tight fits on dummies that may strain materials and stitching (see the section on Wearing Historic Costume below). Remember that many parts of displayed garments fall free of the support, so observe the cautions against hanging.

Cleaning, Handling and Everyday Care

Dust is more than simply a cosmetic problem for clothing. It is easily absorbed by costumes and textiles, and because dust is often acidic and attracts moisture there is an increased risk of chemical activity. Some dust particles may be large enough to cut the fibres. Normal, gentle brush-based dusting techniques may be suitable for some robust fabrics and costumes - and this may be a factor when choosing suitable display objects. (Use a muslin filter over vacuum cleaner nozzles, if one is used behind the brush.) Otherwise, the best remedy is prevention, which implies that vulnerable fabrics should be kept in store or dust free display environments. Needless to say, no costume or fabric should be shaken to remove dust; this severely stresses the garment and its constituent materials.

However infrequently it is worn, an item of clothing will bear the sign of its former use. Perspiration, cosmetics, food, drink and rain all leave marks that may only become visible years later - by which time chemical changes have already occurred. Look for stains and colour changes around the neck, inside the cuffs, under the sleeves, at the hem of long garments, and on fronts of clothing. Severe stains may eventually fall out of the textile leaving holes. Areas that are rubbed or worn during use will show this later as areas of weakness.

Washing historical clothing is a specialist undertaking. Consult a conservator, who will first assess whether any form of wet cleaning is advisable. Modern domestic detergents are unsuitable for museum use; many contain optical brighteners that remain in the fabric, or enzymes that support potentially damaging biological activity. (The passion for 'whiteness' is largely a post-war phenomenon; earlier 'whites' were normally creamy-white or ivory-coloured.) Even soap flakes advertised as 'gentle' or for delicate fabrics may be too alkaline for use with historic textiles. Commercial bleaches depend on harsh chemical reactions using oxygen or chlorine and should never be used, even for small spots and stains.

In a domestic setting, clothes that are unsuitable for wet cleaning are sent to a dry cleaner, but this is another process that should be referred to a conservator. Commercial dry cleaners now filter and reuse solvents because of stricter health and safety legislation, then finish the cleaning sequence by placing the clothes into a heated chamber to recover the remaining solvent. If the conservator advises that dry cleaning is possible, ask the cleaner to use fresh solvent and to omit the heating stage - and be prepared for a longer operation and higher costs. Make sure that dry cleaned garments are thoroughly aired before storage to remove all traces of solvent.

Dry and steam ironing can damage textiles, dyes, finishes and trimmings, and also tend to fix dirt and stains. If you decide that pressing is absolutely essential, and your conservator agrees that it is safe, use a scrupulously clean, warm - not hot - iron through a damp cloth. Ask what will happen to finishes, colours and stains, work the surface as little and as lightly as possible, and do not create new creases or press in folds.

Try to prevent soiling, and remember that costume items are more fragile than they sometimes appear. Handle garments as little as possible, and if you must touch the fabric or other materials such as buttons, always wear cotton gloves. Do not allow smoking, eating, drinking, pens, markers or any other source of staining near historic clothing.


Museums are normally wise enough not to attempt repairs, but may be faced with the attempted repairs of past owners. Old patches, repairs or modifications are arguably part of the object's history, and may be left intact. More troublesome are temporary repairs that use adhesives or tapes - which are often impossible to remove and cause unsightly stains - and painted or inked areas covering wear or fading.

Keep all fragments, detached threads and accessories together until the object can be sent for repair. Wrap them in tissue and store them with the rest of the garment in its box. Avoid temporary stitching or pinning, which could crease undue stress as the separated surfaces are pulled back together. Cobbling, tacking and pinning also leave lines of holes after the repair is complete. If you need to show how pieces fitted together, provide drawings and sketches and leave the pieces in their separate wrappings.

Wearing Historic Costume

Costume in museum collections should never be worn. This is a form of use that is almost never justified. Just one brief instance could be enough to cause considerable damage.

The present-day person who attempts to wear the costume is highly unlikely to have the same size, shape, posture and movement as its original owner. These are matters of both individual shape and passing fashion. For example, the garment was probably made to measure, before today's era of standard sizes and taller people. And at several periods, including much of the twentieth century, many women wore corsets and girdles as a matter of course to achieve the fashionable shape of the day.

As the modern wearer squeezes into the garment, seams may split without warning and signs of wear may suddenly appear in the stressed fabric. Trimmings, lace or embroidery barely holding on to the textile may finally break away, and fastenings may no longer be strong enough to withstand the stress of use. Even if the garment survives intact, and food, drink and tobacco are kept well away, worn costumes are highly vulnerable to persistent staining from perspiration and cosmetics.

Costumes for theatrical or educational purposes, pageants or re-enactments should be replicas. Your museum's policy will normally restrict access to persons with established bona fides and under controlled conditions, which ensures that copying procedures will not harm the object. For example, you should not permit any examination that breaks your museum's handling rules or that risks disassembly of the garment to see how it fitted together.


Shawls are costume items that share some characteristics with flat textiles. A huge variety survive from many parts of the world, but the best known UK examples come from Paisley in Scotland and Norwich in East Anglia. Typically, shawls are made of wool or silk, but other materials such as cotton are common. Styles vary from the completely plain to highly decorated pieces carrying woven, embroidered or printed designs, fringes and sometimes fastenings.

Although they are deceptively simple items and appear robust, shawls are as prone to damage from mishandling and use as any other costume item. Subject them to the same standards of care - and restrictions on wearing - as other costume items in the collection. Avoid picking shawls up by their ends, corners or fringes; use both hands and arms for support to distribute the stress and to minimise stretching.

If you have enough space, store shawls like carpets on rollers wider than the shawl itself, interleaved with acid-free tissue paper. Wrap the completed roll in well-washed calico cotton. Where this is impossible, store the shawl in a box like a large garment (see above): lay it over acid-free tissue paper, using rolls of the tissue to pad out any folds, and fit it into a box lined acid-free tissue separating each part of the shawl from other and from the box.

Display requirements resemble those of carpets (see the fact sheet on Flat Textiles), and centre on the need to lay a large item over a flat area and the problems caused by shawl's own weight. Robust items could be hung evenly over a long rod for a limited period, but the weight of the overhanging portions will eventually stretch the material. Do not hang silk shawls with heavy fringes.

Sources of Information and Advice

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

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

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