People often assume that as a costume curator I must be an amazing seamstress, make all my clothes, or can whip out a crinoline in about an hour’s time. There is certainly a perception that to be interested in this area, one must have approached the field from the angle of a designer or a creator who makes things. I often get asked by visitors, “how did you end up in this job?”. They are often surprised to hear that, no, I do not make my own clothes (or clothes for anyone else), and that my interest stems from art history, museology and archival practice, collecting historical clothing, and the sheer joy and fascination of wearing clothes and studying how and why others wear what they do. I explain that there are other ways to professionally engage with clothing besides creating or selling it.
As Emma mentioned in a recent post, there has been a steadily growing academic interest in the act of wearing, choosing, and assembling an outfit–a different approach from the designer’s point of view (or that of a wealthy collector of couture or high-end ready-to-wear, for that matter). That said, I do think that understanding how clothing is constructed is extremely important for the costume curator or collection manager. Knowing how something is made and conforms to, deviates from, or changes with the body allows you to effectively present the garment as well as care for and interpret it. But should all costume curators be able to create all the types of garments, textiles, and accessories in their care? I would encourage all to revisit Rebecca’s thoughtful post from a few years ago; as one commentor said, that’s a “pretty tall order”, but also the goal should be to strike a balance between the theoretical and the material knowledge of the garments themselves.
For those of us who are neither natural nor trained Madeleine Vionnets, there are things you can do to improve your fabrication skills, or at least heighten the understanding of those abilities. After all, the absence of a fine arts, design, or fabrication background is little excuse to completely ignore building up or honing those skills. The suggestions below will not immediately transform you into a cutter/fitter wizard, but here are a few things I have found useful:
- Study up on anatomy and muscle groups of the human body, or how the body behaves or looks in different stances. I’ve been encouraged to do this by conservators and designers over the years, and it’s great advice. Getting to know the human body better (and how different undergarments affect it, of course) means you’ll know how to better represent it beneath clothing. Take a life drawing class if you’re up for it.
- Keep looking. This may seem obvious, but it has been another great piece of advice given to me. Being able to recognize construction techniques, fabric, or embellishments from different eras relies on examining historical clothing over and over again. Of course this isn’t always possible–it may be difficult to get access to a collection or to particular types of garments, and interior details aren’t usually visible or pictured when looking at clothing in an exhibition gallery. If the opportunity to examine real garments is far and few between, of course print publications are the next best thing.
One great resource recently brought to my attention is Couture Sewing Techniques by Claire B. Shaeffer. It includes excellent interior photographs, diagrams and definitions of hand sewing techniques and types of stitches, and explains through text and images how certain visual effects can be materially realized. Even if you can’t execute this type of dress by yourself, you can better understand a garment through such descriptions and excellent photos . Also, fashion collection databases can include an impressive amount of detail and interior images, many with good resolution. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Drexel University Digital Museum Project are a few examples.
If you’re like me, you’ve amassed and held onto vintage clothing over the years. Really take a look at something and see how it’s put together or how the fabric falls or behaves when it moves. Of course you can handle your own clothes or vintage pieces with more, well, vigor than you can collection material. You can take apart linings or seams to see how something is constructed beneath.
- Take a sewing class to brush up your skills or refresh on the basics. Last fall I took a local sewing class over several weekends and made a simple tunic. Learning how to set sleeves had the side benefit of making better “sleeves” or arms for a mannequin. This forces those of us without fabrication or design background to think from two dimensions to three dimensions. You can also practice making simple undergarments for exhibition display. Lara Flecker’s book, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting (which I’ve mentioned before), includes straightforward descriptions and diagrams for creating undergarments or reproduction pieces that may be missing from an ensemble, like a sash. It assumes quite a bit of skill or previous knowledge (I don’t feel particularly confident creating a tissue or muslin toile of a fragile slashed 17th century bodice, for example), but overall it is a great resource for raising your confidence in making simple, vital pieces for the display of clothing.