The Importance of a Costume Collection

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to write another article for The Salisbury Museum’s Look Again Project blog, about the importance of a costume collection and having recently graduated, I thought what perfect timing!

As a historical costume maker, having the opportunity to look at the museum’s collection is such a valuable resource, especially when it comes to carrying out primary research. Being able to handle the garments and see them up close almost has the power to transport you back in time and visualise the type of individual who might have worn them all those years ago. There is something quite magical about unwrapping the tissue paper in one of the brown boxes containing historical garments, as you often don’t know what you may come across which is such an exciting prospect. It enables all the minute details, that perhaps would have been missed behind a glass cabinet, to be appreciated, such as the delicate piping on a bodice, the tight cartridge pleats on a skirt or the layered embroidery on a waistcoat. Noting these historical aspects of a garment is so important as it enables fashion historians and costume makers to learn about the techniques used in the period. This allows their history to live on through future interpretations of clothing from that era.

When considering the undergarments that would have been worn throughout different periods, primary research is equally as important. For my most recent project, I interpreted a fashion plate from the Victoria & Albert Museum that illustrated an 1838 promenade dress and bonnet. This was a time when multiple petticoats would have been layered on top of one another to create the bell-shaped skirts, including a corded petticoat and multiple starched petticoats over the top. The corded petticoat would have helped to create structure to the skirt and support the weight and sheer amount of material used on the top fabric skirt. They were ‘invaluable for the late 1830s and 40s’ (Pitcher, 2018) as this was before the invention of the cage crinoline. While volunteering at the museum with the decant of the current costume display, it just so happened that I came across a corded petticoat! This was excellent primary research as I was able to look at the placement of the cord and take measurements of the extremely wide hem to assist in the construction of my own garment. It was fascinating to find that the cord channels had actually been woven into the fabric and I found it so helpful to feel the weight of the petticoat to identify the material as cotton twill. Below are some images of the corded petticoat from the museum and my 1830s undergarments.

By examining the fabric and decoration of the garment, we can equally understand a lot of the social history connected to the piece, including the wealth of the wearer, their status in society, occupation, and developments in technology. The fact that costume has the ability to connect these other aspects of history, highlights the collection’s importance in educating future generations about specific eras.

When I first visited The Salisbury Museum, I had the chance to look around the costume collection before the decant began and seeing the costumes displayed on a figure is also beneficial to visualise the silhouette of the time. While the facility to see some pieces up close allows you to see their finer details, seeing the garments on a mannequin enables you to truly appreciate the difference in the body shape between a modern society and our predecessors. For a museum, the costume collection holds much value and is a vital part of the education of young people as well as industry professionals, because it has the ability to interlink many aspects of history through items that we can all relate to today.

Here is a link to The Salisbury Museum's Look Again blog where my article is featured alongside lots of other interesting reads:


Pitcher, I. (2018). The Victorian Dressmaker. Prior Attire, p.42.


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