Museum Life: Curatorial skills

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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.

 

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5 Comments

  • Peggy October 15, 2014 01.07 am

    I agree with you about how, even though you don’t sew, understanding garment construction and fabrics is crucial to this area of museums. I went to a talk about a certain designer at a local museum and the lady who gave the talk didn’t have a clue about how the garment was made. Fortunately there were enough of us sewers there that we could answer some of the questions others had during the informal presentation. I think if she had a look at the Couture book you were referencing it would’ve been better..or she could just give me her job!

    I enjoyed this post very much.

     
  • Rebecca Evans October 15, 2014 05.54 am

    Hi Jill,

    Thank you for your thoughts on this and for referencing my post from a few years back.

    I guess my concern is that so many post-graduate museum studies courses in Australia lack engagement with material culture in their courses. I often have interns who don’t know how use material culture to investigate history or even how to handle objects.
    Dress has a ‘lived in’ quality that differentiates it from many other objects in historic collections, I believe that it is even more important to understand how they are made, altered etc…

    May I recommend two journal articles on this topic,
    •Juliette Peers, “‘London, Paris, New York, and Collingwood’: Reconsidering Pre-1945 Australian Fashion’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 10, no. 1, 2010
    *Valerie Steele, ‘A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag’, Fashion Theory, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp.327–336

    Thank you,

    Rebecca

     
  • Rebecca Evans October 15, 2014 05.54 am

    Hi Jill,

    Thank you for your thoughts on this and for referencing my post from a few years back.

    I guess my concern is that so many post-graduate museum studies courses in Australia lack engagement with material culture in their courses. I often have interns who don’t know how use material culture to investigate history or even how to handle objects.
    Dress has a ‘lived in’ quality that differentiates it from many other objects in historic collections, I believe that it is even more important to understand how they are made, altered etc…

    May I recommend two journal articles on this topic,
    •Juliette Peers, “‘London, Paris, New York, and Collingwood’: Reconsidering Pre-1945 Australian Fashion’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 10, no. 1, 2010
    *Valerie Steele, ‘A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag’, Fashion Theory, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp.327–336

    Thank you,

    Rebecca

     
  • Jill October 16, 2014 09.31 am

    Dear Rebecca,

    Thanks so much for your response. My post is certainly not a critique of your views, but just a few thoughts from the perspective/experiences of a (largely) non-practitioner in design. I think your observations are spot on, and I also encounter students/visitors who are confused as to how to interpret or approach material objects.
    I agree that more engagement with material culture in graduate and undergraduate courses is necessary–in museum studies, history, art history, and information/archival studies–many students from these programs are hungry to get experience working with “non-text” material like clothing. Historically, in the context of archival theory, garments or other three-dimensional objects are viewed sometimes as mere gateways or accessories to the “real stuff”–text-based artifacts like personal letters, business records, literary manuscripts, etc..
    I recall that most of my time during my art history coursework was spent reading theory and looking at slides–I’m not sure how much this approach has really changed. Also practice-based courses are often not included within art history programs. My undergraduate degree did require such classes, which I agree is extremely valuable. You will never look at a painting (or a garment, print, necklace–anything) the same way again when you’ve had to make it yourself!

    Thanks for the article citations as well–I will check them out.

    Best,
    Jill

     
  • Jill October 16, 2014 09.34 am

    Dear Peggy,

    Thanks for your response. I am always grateful to hear the thoughts and perspectives of experienced designers–some detail or element of construction that may seem perplexing to me can sometimes be very obvious to someone who has years of sewing experience behind them. But I think there is specific knowledge that both historians/curators without this background and experienced designers and seamstresses can bring to the table, and a combination of both of these skills and expertise is important.

    Best,
    Jill

     

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