Confessions of a Costume Curator 

As a fashion historian, my job is to learn from other people’s clothes—a task that is challenging, messy, and often spooky.

Katie Posner

There’s something transgressive about touching other people’s clothes—especially dead people’s clothes. Some would even call it spooky. As a costume curator and fashion historian, I have colleagues who swear that they have felt, and even seen, ghostly presences in their museums’ costume-storage areas. It’s easy to get the chills in those cramped rooms, which are climate-controlled to the ideal temperature and humidity for textiles, not for humans. I myself have not encountered any phantom fashionistas, but once I opened a box and a fox stole—complete with eyes, paws, tail, and teeth—seemed to leap out, making me scream so loudly that two security guards came running. Occasionally I’ll find a stray hair, a frayed hem, or a telltale stain on an otherwise pristine garment carefully packed away for posterity in acid-free tissue paper and remember, with a jolt, that there was once a living, breathing, sweating human body inside it—a body that has been still for up to hundreds of years.

Obviously, this is not the impression we curators want to give museum visitors. Blockbuster fashion exhibitions are big business, from the $25 tickets to boutique-like gift shops, and the only scary thing about them should be the hours-long line to get in. Once inside the galleries, visitors see clothes reanimated on mannequins, with atmospheric lighting and music, high-tech interactive displays, and painstakingly researched explanatory labels and catalogues. The Costume Institute’s 2016 show Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology was the seventh most attended exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 147-year history, beating the record-breaking Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty show from 2011. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, drew even more people over the course of its five-year, 12-city tour, which ended last year. Even museums not known for collecting costume have bought into the trend; the Museum of Modern Art’s upcoming Items: Is Fashion Modern? will be the institution’s first fashion exhibition in 73 years when it opens in October.

The buzziest shows emphasize contemporary fashion. But historic dress—the kind I mostly deal with—is a powerful draw, too, especially in the age of Game of Thrones, Outlander, and Poldark. Few museum visitors have ever handled a marble bust or a gilded snuffbox, but everyone wears clothes. Whether it’s a 17th-century silk doublet or an Imperial Russian court gown, anyone can look at a garment and evaluate it from a place of experience. Maybe that’s why people are mystified when I tell them what I do for a living. They can relate to the subject instantly—and, at the same time, can’t understand why my job requires years of training and a graduate degree (or two). Today, when seemingly everything, from cocktail menu to playlist, is described as being curated, “But what do you actually do?” is a question I get all the time—and a full answer involves mannequin mutilation and crotch-stuffing, writing and lecturing, bidding on eBay, researching history and art history, and honing a sense of style that both channels and transcends the sensibilities of any given era.

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I am not a fashion designer. The worst sin I can commit at my job is trying on the clothes in my care, or allowing someone else to, because museum pieces are for studying, preserving, and displaying, not for wearing. But it’s the wearing that gives them meaning. And it’s often the flaws in a garment—the discolorations, the smells, the split seams, the runaway sequins—that speak the loudest, poignant reminders of the lives lived in them.

An antique textile dealer once told me about a woman who called her, wanting to sell a black dress worn by her great-great-grandmother, who had died in the 1850s. Not another Victorian black dress, the dealer thought, rolling her eyes. The caller continued: “My great-great-grandmother was a slave.” The dealer nearly dropped the phone in shock, then invited the caller to name her price; documented slave clothes are as rare as Victorian black dresses are commonplace. The lesson was that sometimes, it’s the woman—or man—who makes the clothes, not the other way around. In other words, every wedding dress is special, but only Kate Middleton’s wedding dress could bring in $15 million in ticket sales during just two months on display at Buckingham Palace.

To most people, a preoccupation with clothing is superficial, if not borderline immoral; even the Bible asks: “Why do you worry about clothes?” But fashion historians are more inclined to agree with Oscar Wilde’s line from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” Though some may see our jobs as frivolous, curators understand that clothes reveal ineffable truths about not just individual lives, but also collective values and experiences. Garments act as totems and taboos, and retain their power to impress or intimidate long after they were first worn. Things like Ku Klux Klan robes and Nazi uniforms are collected but rarely displayed by museums, precisely because they so powerfully evoke events and emotions most would prefer to forget. At the same time, old clothes acquire new and problematic meanings over time. Many museums are now reluctant to display fur garments because they may offend animal lovers, even though fur has been an integral element of dress for thousands of years.

Thanks to modern technology and the efforts of specialist textile scientists, curators can now appreciate historical garments in ways their original beholders and wearers could not. Polarizing microscopes and high-resolution digital images reveal textures, weaves, and threads invisible to the naked eye. Cutting-edge conservation treatments reinflate sleeves crushed by centuries of careless storage or restore shattered silk linings. X-rays reveal the complex interior boning of a Balenciaga evening gown, and military-grade chemical inhibitors remove aluminum corrosion on Neil Armstrong’s space suit.

But no amount of scientific analysis can capture the feel, sound, and smell of historic clothing—and that’s where costume curators and conservators (who are responsible for the technical examination and treatment of textiles) have a privileged perspective. We get to touch it. We enjoy intimate proximity with other people’s clothes, laid out on lab tables under lights and magnifying glasses like surgical patients, not in dimly illuminated public galleries where the objects are kept out of reach behind glass or velvet ropes. We find the hidden pockets; the discreet padding; the lingering whiff of perfume or tobacco. By the time they go on public display, we know them as well as the clothes on our own backs.

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Costume exhibitions offer a remembered way of dressing that is at once more attractive and more idiosyncratic than today’s. It seems to me that the popularity of these shows has skyrocketed alongside society’s growing tendency to dress down, a phenomenon that, while hardly new, has been greatly accelerated by the rise of the laid-back tech industry and social media. The growth of athleisure has hardly abated the craving for old-fashioned elegance: Dapper Day, first held at Disneyland in 2011, has grown into an international movement, workplaces have started embracing Formal Friday dress codes, and even corsets are back.

While the demand for such museum shows is clear, less obvious is the fact that they entail years of preparation, even if they’re typically on view for just a few months—the maximum amount of time the fragile fibers can be exposed to light without fading or deteriorating. Compared to other types of artwork, garments and textiles are relatively inexpensive to collect, but they are notoriously costly to store, maintain, and exhibit. New textile acquisitions must be quarantined in giant freezers for two weeks before being unpacked, to kill any insects that might have stowed away in their folds. One day, I was at work when a brand-new pair of Prada’s Art Nouveau-inspired Fairy shoes arrived in the mail: a donation, still in the original box. It was promptly slapped with a museum-inventory number and hustled into storage, never to be worn. There wasn’t a dry eye in the office.

We curators are only human, after all. Of course we want to try on the clothes; it’s what got us interested in working with costume collections in the first place. That said, you won’t find many curators on best-dressed lists. Given the opportunity, we’d probably all be wearing head-to-toe Issey Miyake and Martin Margiela. But most museums are nonprofits; in general, they don’t pay us well enough to indulge in the edgy, cerebral labels we love best. (One curator I know has worn the same artfully deconstructed Ann Demeulemeester dress for every speaking engagement for the past eight years.) Often, though, you can identify a costume curator by the accessories: a stunning shibori scarf picked up on a courier trip to Kyoto, or a fabulous piece of costume jewelry from an insider-y vintage store, or a shoe collection to rival any museum’s.

Curators are also drawn to natural fibers, which can be a curse in this day and age, when pure silks, wools, linens, and cottons are the exception, not the rule, as they were until the mid-20th century. Today, many of the fabrics and handcraft techniques common to historic garments and textiles exist only in haute couture. Most of our clothes and their materials are produced quickly and cheaply using machines; computers have simplified the tailoring and fitting process. This has made fashionable dress available to more people but at the expense of the quality and individuality evident in even the everyday clothing of previous generations.

The one high-tech textile curators love is Tyvek, the soft, white, spun-polyethylene material Netflix used to ship DVDs in. We go through bolts and bolts of it, using it to line worktables, shroud mannequins, and carpet gallery floors during installation. Tyvek protects, but—more importantly—it also conceals, for what happens behind the scenes of a costume exhibition is not pretty. Unlike hanging a painting on a wall, mounting a three-dimensional object on an entirely different three-dimensional object is an all-day endeavor.

Curators alter the mannequin to fit the garment, never the other way around. We routinely disfigure mannequins with polyester batting, felt, and tulle to make them conform to clothes that were custom-tailored for unique, imperfect bodies and often distorted by long-lost foundation garments. Alternatively, we dismember them; some of the unspeakable acts I’ve performed on mannequins include shaving down breasts, amputating toes, and truncating too-long limbs.

More than historians, we are also stylists. It takes a good eye and a steady hand to dress a mannequin, but it requires a bold leap of the imagination and intellect to outfit that mannequin with a hat, jewelry, gloves, shoes, and other accessories appropriate to the taste of the period; to anchor an orphaned garment in a place, a social class, and a time of year (and time of day); and, ultimately, to do so in a way that makes it accessible and attractive to multigenerational, multicultural audiences.

And that’s after you’ve agonized over the specs of the mannequin. Does it need hands? A head? Does the head need a face? Or hair? What is the hair going to be made of? (Paper, tulle, polyester fiberfill, and buckram are popular options; the Saint Louis Art Museum’s current menswear show uses suit interfacing, a clever tailoring twist.) When—for purely aesthetic reasons—the J. Paul Getty Museum included headless mannequins in its 2011 show Paris: Life & Luxury, one critic interpreted them as foreshadowing the guillotine. By leaving the mannequins’ bodies incomplete and allowing visitors to fill in the gaps themselves, curators sometimes risk inviting incorrect assumptions.

The color of mannequins has become a pressing concern in my line of work, too, as exhibition themes and displays ramp up their efforts to depict diversity. Mannequins with realistic skin tones tend to look old-fashioned or uncanny-valley-adjacent, but “neutral” colors like white or pale gray often read as Caucasian—the latter an especially glaring problem in a show like FIT’s Black Fashion Designers or the Chicago History Museum’s Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair. In recent years, custom-made “floating” forms—hollow torsos concealed by the clothes and hung by invisible wires—have surged in popularity, because they sidestep so many of the issues that mannequins pose. Imagine inflating a garment like a balloon until it takes on the size and shape of its original wearer. It’s as if the former owner has just stepped out for a moment; literally disembodied, the garments themselves become ghosts.

Dressing mannequins, with all the practical considerations and cultural nuances that entails, has changed the way I dress myself. I have a vast collection of half-slips and other archaic undergarments, and you can usually find a few safety pins somewhere on my person, keeping all those layers in place. My tiny closet is crowded with acid-free boxes, shoe trees, and homemade padded hangers and linen garment bags. But studying other people’s clothes has shaped me in other, more profound ways, as well. I no longer view clothing as ornament or protection, but as communication. To my mind, dress codes and sumptuary laws are free-speech issues; dress speaks louder—and with more honesty—than words. And very little in fashion strikes me as new or surprising. Hemlines and hairstyles may change, but the forces driving them—human frailty, vanity, and ingenuity—are eternal.