What would you do for the chance to come face-to-face with Dior’s New Look?

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The London Victoria & Albert Museum’s Clothworkers Centre deserves to be much better known: it is an unparalleled resource, right in the centre of the capital, housing over 100,000 historic fashion and textile items. This is amazing enough, without the additional revelation that this treasure trove is available for anyone to view. You just check out their online catalogue, email them to say what you would like to see and book your appointment.

Suzanne Smith, the Manager of the Centre, gave a fascinating talk at the Fashion and Textile Museum, describing some of the treasures she holds and the challenges of looking after them. Some are “ghost dresses”: little more than lining and the skeletal remains of construction. Others are more substantial, for example Christian Dior’s original silk shantung Bar jacket and black wool crepe skirt. It is the Centre’s most-viewed item and many are fascinated to learn that the skirt is extremely heavy, weighed down by the horsehair sewn into the pleats at its waist to provide its distinctive shape.

There are thousands of shoes, set on sliding shelves in chronological order, including tiny Chinese satin envelopes for bound feet and lavishly brocaded eighteenth century slippers. The clothes lie flat where they can, in 7,000 drawers but space constraints require that the collection also hangs on 500 metres of rails, each garment bag labelled and grouped by designer.

So, what is Ms Smith’s advice for conservation in the domestic wardrobe?

  1. Store flat if you can.
  2. Use archival boxes and tissue paper and ensure the lid closes fully. Remember that archival boxes must rest on metal, not wood, in order to remain effective.
  3. Check your item regularly and keep it in a cool, dry place (NOT the loft – the worst possible location).
  4. Make your own garment bags from Tyvek fabric (the material used for some airmail packages)

Finally some topical advice during the current 70s bohemian revival: the best way to store fringed items is to tie the fringe into little pony tails. Grooming for textiles: you heard it here first.

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