Inside the Costume Institute at the MET

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for my former days working with costume collections and I suspect a number of you enjoy looking at the inner workings of costumes and museums alike. I happened upon these videos which provide a wonderful, inside look at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The first video highlights two dresses, one by Madame Gres and another by Paul Poiret. The conservator, Chris Paulocik, shows some examples of how garments are prepared for installation and discusses garment construction. It’s entertaining, informative and clear.

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More on the above pictured dress can be found at the Met’s website. Fore more information on conservation techniques, The Kent State University Museum website is an excellent (and detailed) resource.

Another video features former collections assistant Jessa Krick*, in a lovely montage of several garments being examined in storage, with a sort of music-video feel. Designers include Miyake, Adrian, Worth and others. For those of you desperate to get up close and personal with historically significant garments, to examine techniques, fabrics and embellishments, this is the video for you:

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In both videos, there is a surprising amount of ‘hands-on’ research taking place (literally, in the first video the conservator touches dresses without gloves. In the second, the outside researcher is allowed to touch the garment). Many museums are starting to be much more strict about researchers being able to even make appointments, let alone touch the garments. If you’re at a museum, please comment on how much access your museum allows. If you are an outside researcher, I’d love to hear some of your recent experiences with museum access.

*Jessa Krick is now the Collection Manager/Curatorial Assistant for Historic Hudson Valley, a group of historic sites in Westchester County, New York

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  • Arden Kirkland October 21, 2009 08.57 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing these videos! How did you come across them? I’m very interested to see details of costume shared in this way. I’ve been experimenting with a blog about a costume reproduction project (, sharing many detailed images. However, I’ve been thinking that video would be better to capture the sense of how the detail fits into the garment as a whole, especially when it comes to interior construction. I’ve been a little nervous about being a part of such a video, but seeing these videos helps give me more confidence. In fact, I wish the second one had less music, so we could hear them talking instead, describing just what they’re pointing to (especially since the video isn’t very high resolution).

    It’s also great to see Jessa, who I’ve only spoken with on the phone and never met in person!

    The issue of museum access is a complicated one. My students at Vassar are very lucky to have the kind of hands-on (or gloves-on) access that is shown in the videos (with our own research collection in-house). However, we know that no matter how careful we are with the objects, any time we take them out of storage it’s a risk. So, it’s a calculated risk, a delicate balance between preservation and access. Many institutions are heavier on the preservation side, and you have to respect that. I hope that digitization can provide greater access, but students need to have some physical contact with some objects somewhere in order to understand what they’re seeing digitized.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing!


  • Nicole October 22, 2009 08.51 am

    Thank you so much for this!! My thesis is on Poiret and this inside look at the MET is much appreciated!!

  • Carolyn October 22, 2009 10.31 am

    Hi there!

    I’m visiting this site for the first time, and lo and behold, what I first encounter is something I can completely relate to! I’m currently writing my MA thesis on pre-industrial garment construction and the working lives of 18th c. English seamstresses through the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.

    My research incorporates a significant amount of object-based research, and my PhD will heavily focus on it. Thus, I’m very excited to respond to your query at the end of the post.

    Although deep in oil country, the University of Alberta has a good-sized clothing and textiles collection, housed in the Human Ecology Department. It is a study collection, meant for the use of students in the conservation program, apparel design, and dress history. It’s not a full-on museum (although there is a nice exhibition space), and outside researchers are both welcomed and encouraged. Appointments should be made, researchers are generally required to wear the little white gloves, and they will be attended by the collections manager. However, people are allowed to handle garments after being given a quick tutorial on artefact handling and spend as much time in the collection as they wish. I consider it pretty open-access.

    I have had several other collections experiences as part of my research process. I was VERY fortunate to have obtained 4 appointments in one week at the V&A during reading week one year. The V&A is a little on the restrictive side, however. Appointments are 2 hours, an assistant curator is assigned to you, and although you wear gloves too, you’re not really allowed to handle the artefacts yourself. The assistants are very helpful and obliging, but it still gets a little aggravating after a while. Oh, and you have to let them know in advance what sort of artefact(s) you’re interested in, and they choose for you.

    I subsequently spent 2 months in England doing a sort of research-internship at the Museum of London where, because I informed them I had conservation training and I was doing work for them as well as myself, I was given a lot of freedom. I was allowed to go into the collection and choose garments myself, then spend as much time with them as I wished.

    During this time I had appointments elsewhere. The Museum in Bath was similar to the V&A experience, but I was allowed to handle the artefacts myself. This was the same at the National Collections of Scotland in Edinbourgh. The Hereford Museum collection and the one at Berrington Hall (used to be Snowshill Manor) are looked after by the same, very friendly, woman. My experience at those two locations was somewhere between the formal ones and the freedom of the Museum of London.

    Back in Canada, I have since visited the Royal Ontario Museum for an appointment. Although I coud not choose the artefacts myself, I was given several hours and allowed to handle the garments a little. However, it’s not the easiest place to get an appointment at, they’re rather under-staffed (who isn’t?).

    I do have th advantage that I’m a grad student, have formal conservation training, and have a supervisor well-known internationally in the field. However, I got the impression that a lot of collections/museums would be very happy to have researchers come in. The more their collections are used (responsibly) the better able they are to justify their existence, which they are periodically called on to do.

  • Christina Johnson October 22, 2009 12.53 pm

    I love both of these videos!

    I currently work at the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles. We pride ourselves on accessibility. We always make every effort to accommodate research requests from FIDM students and outside researchers. Perhaps this is because so many in our office have experienced frustration in dealing with making appointments at other institutions, and being told “no,” or having very limited time with the objects-I speak from my personal experiences as a Grad student. I also realize researchers can sometimes tell me more about pieces than I already know.

    We have a Study Collection and Study Collection Manager as well as a Permanent Collection and Permanent Collection Manager. It makes it easier to break up the workload and helps to preserve the collections. We think of our 2,000 piece Study Collection as a collection meant to be “used up” at some point. These are the pieces we take to classrooms and use in student presentation. Our Permanent Collection numbers about 12,000 pieces and has much more stringent usage guidelines. But both collections are open to all researchers.

    It saddens me to know that so many institutions are contemplating “off-site” storage, where pieces are stored in facilities that are difficult to access. At least more and more collections are being digitized, which I am really excited about. I think something is lost, though, when looking at a garment on the computer screen as opposed to in person-not only details that were not photographed but also the personal interactions with the staff member showing you the piece-someone who might have more information, or, who can offer connections with other pieces-ideas that don’t always make it into the online catalog.

  • Jean McElvain October 22, 2009 04.14 pm

    I am working as a curator at the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota which holds a sizable costume collection. While we do not allow individuals in our storage areas, we do try to engage students and external researchers and give them access to garments in our collection via the curator and research assistants. Students are sometimes very cued into treating objects carefully and what it means to have something be a museum object. However, it is not infrequent to have questions such as ‘so do you guys wear these sometimes?’

    Hands on (with white gloves, which I noticed the curator in the Met video was not wearing) is an important aspect to learning construction, drape, history, etc. that simply can not be replaced by collection digitization. That being said, I am incredibly hesitant to have students look at items needlessly…and I resist pulling objects that are somewhat sensitive even if they are excellent examples. We do try to rotate objects available for research, and do not allow students to put objects on dress forms (which they often attempt to do without asking). I am conflicted about the practice – it is educationally great to have access, but it does impact a piece without question which ultimately impacts education!

  • Joyce Heckman November 01, 2009 09.45 pm

    I was just at the Met this weekend, and sadly the Costume Institute is closed for renovations 🙁 Their guess was that it will open again in May.


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