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.