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Beginner's Guide to Vintage Costume Documentation

Pink silk Edwardian gown showing boned bodice and self fabric roseattes at cetnre back cummerbund hook-and-eye closure.

Yesterday, after a bad fall, as the x-ray technician took hold of my hips to adjust my position on the cold hard table, I realized his job was not that different than mine. As a costume history author and photographer, I regularly adjust the limbs of mannequins before taking their picture. My goal? The same as his, to photographically document that which isn’t recognizable at a glance: the internal structure of my body in the case of the x-ray technician, or the three-dimensional form of a costume artefact as it would have appeared when originally worn.

What does this x-ray image have in common with my vintage costume artefacts?

In each case, the images are taken at a point in time along a continuum of deterioration and repair, those dynamic processes of injury and healing, which affect all perishable matter. Yup, my body, like the historic garments that I collect, study, and exhibit, will ultimately decompose. Which is why it’s important to take the pictures. X-rays can identify precise areas of injury, which, if treated correctly, can prolong the functioning of my body. Likewise, photographic studies of aged garments can preserve evidence of design details that will deteriorate and even disappear over time.

This is particularly true of chemically treated textiles like the fragile weighted silks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Weighted silk, for example, is destined to tear, shred, and crush over time. Exposure to the handling and light necessary to photograph such textiles contributes to their demise but can be a necessary step in the preservation of the garment’s history. Just as we accept small doses of radiation in order to benefit from x-ray technology.

But hang on. The interpretation of images we take as historians and/or x-ray technicians is in the eye of the beholder. I found that out the hard way when my original urgent care physician failed to diagnose a vertebral fracture, an important oversight because diagnosis determines treatment.

Inevitble destruction of a weighted silk beaded flapper gown

And, so it is with the study of historic costume. Whether studying an artefact itself, or a photographic representation of it, historians may differ in their interpretation. That is why it’s important to gather as much information about historic costume as possible. Even when carefully styled for the photo shoot, shaping and draping can only do so much.

Ask yourself: Who wore it, designed it, sold or purchased the item? Where was it made? What is its fabrication? Has the costume been altered or repaired? Where has it been stored? What was its original cost, its present value? How many times has it changed hands? Note the sentient details as well. How does it smell? Smoky with a hint of moth balls; newly laundered? Is it sticky; slippery; slubbed? These observations and notations will not only tell you about the history of a garment but about its preservation needs as well. To me, one of the most interesting considerations about an aged garment are why it was preserved, and what purpose it presently serves.

As I recuperate from my fall to enable my broken bone to heal, I think it’s fitting that I take up needle and thread for a little conservation work on some very special, but damaged, vintage textiles.

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