A New Costume Display

Part of our Costume in Context gallery has recently been re-displayed, with six new dresses going on display.

It is important that we regularly re-display the costumes in this gallery, as fabrics can be damaged by light if left on display for too long (this is also why we keep the light levels low in the gallery). The process of changing a display takes longer than you may think, and our Collections Officer, Leah, has spent about six weeks working on the display.

Firstly, Leah searched the database for suitable items. She wanted to display dresses from a wide time-span to show how fashion changed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She chose six dresses, the earliest from the 1820s, and the most recent from the 1970s. Once she had chosen the dresses, Leah carefully inspected their condition to make sure they were safe to be mounted and displayed.

The prepared costumes wait in the textile store to be put on display

The next step was to prepare the mannequins. We cannot fit the dresses to our mannequins because we don’t want to put pins in the costume or create creases and folds, so instead we fit the mannequins to the dresses. Leah adjusted each mannequin to the correct height, and then created the correct shape using wadding and acid-free tissue, with a layer of Tyvek or cotton jersey to create a smooth finish. This creates a realistic shape, and ensures the dress is fully supported whilst on display. Leah then carefully steamed each dress to remove  any creases.

The next step was to research the dresses and create labels. The labels include information about the particular dress – such as who wore it – but also contextual information about fashion trends at the time.

Leah then de-installed the existing display. She carefully removed the dresses from their mannequins  and stored them in boxes, which were double-bagged and put into the freezer for two weeks to kill any insects that may have found their way into the costumes. Some insects, such as moths, can eat costume and textiles, causing permanent damage. After two weeks, the costume will be slowly defrosted and stored back in the museum’s textile store.

A dress is tweaked to get the arrangement of the train just right

Finally, Leah thoroughly cleaned the display case before installing each mannequin. Many detailed discussions were had about positioning, and hours of adjusting and tweaking took place to make sure each costume looked just right! Then the labels were added, and the display was finally ready!

Why not come along and admire the new display? It features a silk dress from the 1820s; a day dress from the 1860s; a stunning black mourning dress from the 1880s; a sheer crepe day dress from the 1920s; a wartime wedding dress from the 1940s; and a bohemian floral dress from the 1970s. Discover how fashion changed, adapted and came almost full circle in 150 years.

You can find out more about our Costume and Textiles collection here, or contact Leah if you have any questions.