Fashion in the Museum: Clothes Tell Stories

At the recent annual meeting of ICOM (the International Council of Museums) in Rio de Janerio, the Costume Committee launched a website called: Clothes Tell Stories. Intended to assist museum professionals with responsibilities for textiles and dress in museums around the world, this site offers guidance on topics such as care of dress artifacts, how to chose a mannequin,  as well as the use of social media. I recently interviewed Alexandra Kim, a former curator at the Royal Historic Palaces, to find out more about this ICOM initiative.


Alexandra Kim, Dress Historian and Curator

Ingrid: Let’s start with some background on how this project came to be. What was the impetus that led to the project?

Alexandra: The project was devised by Katia Johansen, the chair of the ICOM Costume Committee. As an international committee of museum professionals producing a web based resource about working with costume in museums seemed like a wonderful way of sharing the Committee’s knowledge, experience and passion. In the past the Committee has produced a number of really useful publications for working with costume in museums, including:

Vocabulary of Basic Terms for Cataloguing Costume

Guidelines for Working with Costume

We also know that there are many collections which have great examples of clothing and costume but which might need some encouragement and inspiration in helping to tell their stories, whether through research, display or social media. A specially designed web resource providing advice, suggestions and guidelines felt like the best way to share this information as widely as possible.


Ingrid: Tell me more about the committee for those that might not be familiar with the work of  ICOM and the Costume Committee.

Alexandra: The Costume Committee is one of the international committees of ICOM, the International Council of Museums. The Costume Committee was founded in 1962 and is one of ICOM’s most active international committees, with a membership of museum professionals from around the world; from Australia to Norway, Chile to Japan. Our members include curators, conservators, educators and collections managers and all share a love of costume and making it as accessible to wide and varied audiences. Each year the committee holds an annual meeting in a different country which offers members a chance to engage with and learn more about the dress of the host country, through lectures, special visits and networking. 

Worn Through - sleeve

Detail of a sleeve from an 1830s cotton dress, from Sweden.
From the article “Take a Closer Look at Costume”.
Photo by Lars Westrup, Kulturen

Ingrid: Clothes tell stories is such a provocative name for a website. Can you explain how you chose the title?

Alexandra: We really wanted the project and the website to highlight the narrative power of dress. As exhibitions of dress clearly demonstrate clothing, whether cutting edge fashion or historical dress, is fantastically appealing to museum visitors. It is something to which everyone can relate but which can also have a great emotional or aesthetic draw. Dress in exhibitions however is only one way in which clothes can tell stories; often a careful and close examination of a garment can help to reveal all sorts of fascinating information. We wanted to provide practical and useful advice about how to use costume collections to tell stories and for the title to convey a real sense of this potential in using dress to create a narrative.

Ingrid: Who is the intended audience for this site?

Alexandra: The website is especially aimed at staff in small museums who may have the responsibility of looking after items of clothing in their collections but not have had any special costume and textiles training. They might turn to the website for advice about finding the right mannequin for mounting a dress for display or to gain inspiration from one of the many case studies featured on the site. Other articles offer guidance on identifying textiles and sewing techniques and many of the behind the scenes functions like documentation and collecting. While many of the articles discuss processes which all museum objects have to undergo they provide costume focused advice, something that’s not always easy to find! We also hope however that the website, with its wealth of images and intriguing articles will appeal to students and members of the general public as well as people working in museums.


Ingrid: Are there really people responsible for dress collections that have no training in that area?

Alexandra: People working with collections in museums often have to look after very diverse groups of objects. Many social history curators for example will be responsible for everything from agricultural farm equipment to toys and coins! They won’t necessarily have in-depth training or expertise in looking after every type of object. Additionally clothing is perhaps some of the most difficult types of museum objects to care for. Not only is historic dress (and many modern pieces too!) very fragile; it can also be especially time consuming and complicated to prepare for display; often many hours of work are needed to mount a dress properly on a mannequin. Most small museums are unable to afford a dress specialist to look after the costume in their collection. I think that all of this means that dress is often seen as a little too problematic to display. Added to which it’s not always easy to find practical training about working with costume; most formal qualifications concentrate on the theoretical and dress history side, rather than the actual nuts and bolts of handling dress.


Ingrid: How did you decide what to include on the site?

Alexandra: We were really keen to ensure that we had plenty of articles offering good, practical advice about working with costume in a museum setting. Whether you need to map out all the issues to consider when planning a dress display or take a pattern of a particular garment for research purposes it is often difficult to find straightforward guidance on how to tackle these issues. We considered all of the areas of museum work where there were specific considerations when dealing with dress and tried to include articles to address as many of these as possible. As we wanted the website to provide inspiration for making dress more accessible in museums we also asked outside contributors for case studies of exhibitions and projects which they had undertaken involving dress. We were delighted with the variety of articles which come from all around the world and range from Tina Bates’ study of nurses uniforms to Jillian Li’s exploration of the symbolic power of Chinese children’s clothes. The articles are deliberately concise and eclectic; we wanted them to be informative but accessible, and to act as a springboard for people’s own ideas and creativity.


Ingrid: Do you hope to gather more stories for the site?

Alexandra: Our first task is to promote the current website and its stories and to learn about whether people enjoy it and find it useful. We have a Facebook page  and we hope will allow us to introduce people to specific articles on the website as well as spread the word about the site more widely. While the website covers many areas and examples of working with costume in museums we know there are plenty more stories to be told so we will be seriously considering gathering more stories for the site. Join us on Facebook!

Worn Through - giraffe

Beaded bag decorated with a giraffe, 1826.
Photo courtesy of the Museum of Handbags and Purses, Amsterdam.

Ingrid: What is your favourite story?

Alexandra: Oh, this is a tough question because there are so many stories I like on the site. For its careful observation of surviving garments, clear but friendly advice and in depth knowledge of pre-industrial sewing techniques I love the article Take a Closer Look at Costume by two Swedish members of the ICOM Costume Committee Britta Hammar and Pernilla Rasmussen. Plus it is an article with close up detail images of some beautiful examples of 18th and 19th century dress. An article which I think perfectly illustrates the engaging and poignant appeal of stories told by individual objects is Sigrid Ivo’s History in a Purse about two bags in her Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam. The charming giraffe purse, created as a souvenir in the excitement surrounding the first giraffe in France in 1826, is contrasted nicely with the obvious affection and desire represented in an early 19th century purse with a delicate portrait of a woman and a touching love poem. 


Website: Clothes Tell Stories

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