Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Vintage I Do

QUESTION: I have in my possession my great-grandmother’s wedding dress and accessories. They have been passed down from mother to daughter since my great-grandmother left them to her daughter. They’re in remarkably good shape, considering that they date from the1890s or perhaps earlier. I’d like to know more about how to care for them and since I have no daughters of my own, where I might donate such vintage clothing. Can you offer me any suggestions?

ANSWER: Vintage clothing has undergone somewhat of a Renaissance. As more and more people got interested in history and antiques through shows like the Antiques Roadshow, naturally attention turned to what people wore back then. Also, the proliferation of consignment shops selling vintage clothing has brought more people in touch with well-preserved older items.

Before looking at where you can learn more about the dress and accessories you have, you should understand the difference between old clothes, vintage clothes, and vintage costumes.

Old clothes are just that. Usually, they’re items that people recycle to charities so that less fortunate people can benefit from them. They can take in any time period, but are usually more recent in age. Vintage clothes, on the other hand, are items in good condition from particular periods of history, such as the 1890s, the 1920s, or the 1950s. And vintage costumes are sets of clothes in a style typical of a particular country or historical period. While vintage clothing can be purchased and worn and accessorized to complement today’s fashion styles, vintage costumes are special and can only be worn on special occasions like fancy dress events or in film or the theater.

One of the best places to learn about vintage clothing is at your local historical society. Often the organization will have a museum in which all sorts of historical objects are on display. Some have extensive vintage clothing and costume collections, but unfortunately, most have limited gallery space, so much of the clothing doesn’t get displayed. Many colleges also have costume collections, depending on the courses they offer. These are often unknown to the public, again because of the lack of exhibition space, staff, money, or interest.

The vintage clothing and costumes are usually donated by area residents. They bring in grandmother's or great-aunt Sarah’s clothes that they discovered when cleaning out her house after she died. The items run the gamut in type and condition. Sometimes they have an interesting story or provenance. Aunt Sarah may have even pinned a note to certain items.

These donations may then sit in the institution’s attic waiting for someone to resurrect and restore them. They present opportunities for a hands-on learning experience with costumes. Volunteering at your local historical society will enable you to to gain access to reference materials and vintage costumes. You can also view, close-up, exquisite workmanship and fabrics not available to the average person.

Even though museum visitors rate costume exhibits as one of the most popular attractions, sadly, some museums have little interest in displaying their costume holdings. At one Massachusetts historic site a visiting costume conservator was horrified to find a gown made by premier Parisian designer Worth stored in a shower stall. The director's reaction to her protests was "Why should I care about a woman's dress?"

While this attitude is common and a reason more costumes aren't on display, it opens the door for those who do care. The advantage of volunteering at an unenlightened institution is that a volunteer working on costumes might have a freer hand there than at an institution where the curator considers every thread sacred.

A few museums organize groups and programs centered around their costumes. These often include special seminars and teas, access to archives and the costume collection, and a newsletter.

These are ideal places to learn how to preserve your vintage wedding items. You’ll learn to wear white cotton gloves, what cleaning methods are best, and about different fabric types and safe storage methods, plus the names of suppliers of conservation supplies, such as acid-free boxes and tissue paper.

If you don't want to get involved in volunteering or groups, but want a close-up look at period clothing, some museums will set up appointments with their curators to see their collections.

And before blindly donating your items, be sure to ask how they’ll be cared for and if they’ll ever be displayed.

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