The recent auction of the first part of the famed Debbie Reynolds Hollywood costume collection begs the question, how will the new owners care for these treasures? While the owners can treat them as they wish, it would be comforting to know that they had the long-term preservation of these fragile relics in mind. The high value of these objects would seem to imply that their proper care is assured. But the care and conservation of costumes and textiles is now a science, and there is much to consider in properly storing and displaying of these objects.
Shown above is a gown worn by Lana Turner in "Diane," designed by Walter Plunkett. It was displayed at the Paley Center for the Debbie Reynolds auction by Profiles in History.
The first thing to know about vintage costumes is that they can not stay on display for extended periods of time. The main problem is that light, either natural or electrical, will fade the colors of the costume and will eventually weaken the fibres in the fabric. The hanging of heavy materials, even on a mannequin, will place stress on the part of the fabric bearing the most weight. The presence of furs, beading, jewelry or rhinestones will add greatly to the weight of the costume or its parts, such as sleeves. If a costume should stay on display for longer periods, it is best to cover it with muslin or cotton to shield it from light when it is not on view. It is also important to add support to as much of the costume as possible.
|Tunic designed by Leon Bakst as a costume for Blue God, the Ballets Russes, 1912. Courtesy the National Gallery of Australia.|
The National Gallery of Australia has a wonderful collection of costumes from the Ballets Russes. These ballets and their costumes heavily influenced fashion in 1912 and beyond. The Gallery installed its first exhibition of the costumes in 2011. Many of the costumes had never been on exhibit since first worn on stage. Due to their fragility, their display will always be rare. Some costumes needed to be restored thread by thread. For an amazing modern recreation of the Firebird ballet and costumes from the Ballets Russes, in a filmed version, see ClassicBecky's blog.
The famous dress above worn by Debbie Reynolds in Singing in the Rain, designed by Walter Plunkett, was also in the Debbie Reynolds auction. Since the dress undoubtedly had been on display at the first Debbie Reynolds museum and casino, its colors have faded considerably. It was originally bright blue and cream colored. The dress above in Debbie's collection was a variant of the screen-worn costume, but its original bright blue color would have been the same as the screen-worn version.
The Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising presents an annual exhibition of screen-worn film costumes from the previous year (on occasion with older costumes). The costumes are always tastefully and carefully displayed. Even with new costumes, extreme care must be given. Sometimes they are made of vintage fabric, or include the fur, feathers, beads, metallic objects, and other elements that are fragile. Handling and moving is done methodically and by more than one person. Placing costumes on mannequins is also a challenge. The mannequins themselves should be planned for this purpose. They should provide the necessary support as well as have the right fit. Period costumes need to have mannequins that can adjust or be padded to show the right body type. There are currently specialty mannequins that are designed for archival presentation. See the offerings of Dorfman Museum Figures for example. Needless to say, the sizes of vintage costumes and fashions are usually too small to fit a current mannequin or dress form.
As is true with textiles and vintage fashion, costumes have a variety of enemies. Insects will eat or nest in fabric, water or moisture from whatever source will likely stain fabric, and mold or mildew will often develop. Some air circulation helps with the latter problem.The fabrics themselves will often have their own self-destructive but unseen elements. Mothballs and cleaning fluids leave their residue, and even natural organic chemicals like the lignin in linen, or processing chemicals like sulphur in wool and various dyes will cause staining, bleeding and deterioration. And with most all vintage clothing and costumes, you don't know what they have been in contact with, including make-up, food, and beverages. Short term freezing will kill the bugs. Heat accelerates fabric deterioration, so a cool place with a constant and even humidity level is ideal. Costumes or garments with beading are very prone to having the thread holding a chain of beads break, and vintage sequins will bleed their color after contact with liquids. Both of these materials are also frequently sewn onto very sheer and delicate fabric.
Costumes stored flat is ideal. Padding of the interior with acid-free tissue, or better yet clean cotton (bedsheets that are rinsed of cleaning products are very suitable) is encouraged. This helps avoid creasing that weakens fibres. Although this is a special cabinet drawer, the box inside will help when transporting the costume. When there are metal parts like buttons, grommets, hooks, etc. it is best to place wrapping around them so that rust will not bleed to the fabric and avoids snagging or meshing..
This storage system is at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum.
Costumes can be stored on hangers if they are not heavy or fragile. Padded hangers should be used.
The padded hangers shown above were designed to hang vintage garments. Quilt batting and cotton can be used to make padding for hangers.
The FIDM Museum shows above how a peacock feather headdress designed by Rudi Gernreich is stored. A mount is made and the headdress is kept stable with cotton twill tape.
Two costumes from The King's Speech are displayed above at Barley Hall of the York Archaeological Trust in the U.K. The costumes were part of the exhibition, From Hamlet to Hollywood. Costumes not protected by glass or plexi should be off-bounds to touching. Costumes displayed in the open should be very carefully vacuumed afterwards. An excellent source of information on preservation is the National Park Service, which has several museums in their trust. See their Conserve O Gram series on various preservation topics.
With knowledge and proper care, we hope the preservation of these treasures will keep them available for a few more generations. Such care is not cheap. Even the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas had to raise private money to fund the preservation and restoration effort for their Gone with the Wind costumes.