Larry in the Costume Storage
It is probably safe to say that a good portion of the costumes have been hanging since they were created, but gravity and the exposure to elements often take a toll. I am sure that anyone who collects clothing has noticed the shoulder wings created from a costume that hung on the hanger. I have seen costumes made of synthetic materials where the sleeves stretched to the floor from being hung for so long in hot warehouses. Collectors of film costumes might often notice that one side of the costume is more worn than the other- usually the left side. This is because for many years, the costumes hung on racks and this was the side of the costume that was exposed and handled as people filed through them. Because the costumes were usually stored so tightly, damage could occur from the costume hanging next to it, either because scratching or snagging or through dye transfer.
The majority of the time a costume is in my possession, it is being stored. I feel a responsibility to assure that no further damage happens to the costume while it is under my care. I’ve spent years talking to museum textile professionals to discover what can and should be done and there are also multiple websites that give advice on storing textiles. It can be a daunting project and I, in no way, believe I am an expert in the field but, I try to do what I can, when I can do it. I will address some of the things that I do and it is not meant to imply that these guidelines are the only rules that must be followed. They are things that work for me.
Costume packed for storage
The number one thing I try to do is get costumes off the hangers and into a box. This gets them out of the light and air, helps stabilize humidity and helps to stop the effects of gravity- all of which can harm the fabric. But boxing takes up far more room and if not boxed properly, can do even more damage than if the costume was hanging. Ideally, the pieces should be stored in acid-free boxes, with acid-free tissue or unbleached, un-sized muslin. Acid free materials are more expensive, especially if the costume requires a large box. If a regular wardrobe box must be used, a layer of muslin and Tyvek should be used to create a barrier so the fabric does not touch the cardboard, which can transfer acid to the garment and discolor it and weaken the fibers over time. The tissue and muslin should be changed out from time to time because they will absorb acid from the boxes or the costume themselves. The size of the box should accommodate the costume being able to lay flat as possible with the minimum of folds. These folds can, over time, turn into ceases or depending on the fabric, such as taffeta, can create splits. Ideally, only one costume should be stored in one box, but in reality, I do sometime pack two together, but I place lighter costumes on the top that will not crush the ones on the bottom or I created shelving within the box so that the costumes do not rest on each other.
I buy acid-free tissue in as much bulk as possible so that I do not obsess on the expense of it when it comes time to use it. It has become my best friend. Everything gets layers of tissue between it to cushion and take as much pressure off the fabric as possible and to assure that the fabrics do not rub against each other. Rolled tissue pillows are created if a fabric must roll back over itself to assure that that bend does not become a tight crease. Rolled tissue is also used fill out the inside of the sleeves, shoulders or bust areas to maintain some sort of shape to the costume. The process can a long time and is certainly easier if two people are working on it. There are examples of costumes that I do not box out of fear that it will create more damage than if it was hanging such as accordion pleated chiffon gowns, but in such cases, they are hung in a manner that distributes the weight of the garment.
There is much written by archival sources about correct temperature and humidity conditions that textiles should be kept in and the information sends waves of fear through me. These requirements can be affected by the geographic area where the costumes are being stored. Basically, constant over dry conditions can make the fibers brittle over time. Over humid conditions can cause mold and mildew that can eat away and weaken the fibers. Ideal storage temperature is around 65-70 degrees. Probably most important is to assure that the humidity (which ideally should be about 50 percent) does not fluctuate too much. When there is more humidity, the fibers absorb moisture causing it to expand it and when humidity goes down the fibers shrink. Continuous fluctuation of this condition can weaken the fibers and cause them to split. To a certain extent, temperature also has a similar effect. Textiles can take some fluctuation of all these things, but is should occur over a long period of time.
Lighting is another issue which should be considered, especially if the costumes are on display for any period. Direct sunlight should be avoided. Strong indoor lighting should also be avoided because of the UV rays that can break down fibers over of time and light levels should be low and at a distance to avoid damages and fading.
“Pests” are another problem, which I am constantly monitoring. I cannot tell you the rare but definite terror that goes through me, when I discover moth damage on a costume where it was not before. Quarantine is the immediate response, and the costume is cleaned (if possible). I do try to stay away from harsh chemicals like moth balls that can also damage the fibers. But I have been known to do it in extreme cases. Regular monitoring, re-tissuing, gentle vacuuming and assuring that the garments are not open to the elements are good ways of protecting the garments from unwanted creatures.
Handling the costumes can be an issue. Many conservators insist on the use of white cotton gloves but, I’ve often considered this more of a show because it is difficult to work with a garment with gloves on. Continual washing of the hands appears to be sufficient in making sure that no oils or dirt are transferred to the garment. In handling the costumes, I keep in mind that even though they might look strong, the fabric might delicate, so I take my time and pay attention to how I open snaps and undo hook and eyes. I do not try for force a garment on a mannequin that is too large and will create stress or if I’m trying to fit it on something that is too small and will not support the weight of the garment as it was designed to do. Again, as with packing the garment, two sets of hands are better than one.
In summary, I try to do what I can, staying as close to suggested standards as possible within my budget. I guarantee they are being kept in better conditions than the ever have been before. I try to pay respect to the costume’s inherent vulnerability. I monitor them regularly. I change out the tissue from time to time and change the way the garment is folded so the creases will not become permanent. It is unrealistic to believe that these costumes will never be exposed to harmful elements, especially if the goal is to publically show them. An exhibition does take “a little bit of the costumes life away,” so I try to choose them carefully and try not to display them for long periods of time. I made the personal decision years ago, after seeing a model step on a train of a costume she was wearing and rip the costume off at the waist, that my pieces would not be worn on live models. Basically, I try to use common sense.
Conservator Lynn Bathke Packing Items