Katia Johansen
Royal Danish Collections




Unlike many other categories of museum objects, costume requires a great deal of handling in order to be stored and exhibited properly. The fabrics involved are fluid and soft, and are meant to be supported on a figure. As museum objects must be treated differently from our clothes at home, this requires training and considerable self discipline, as well as a special knowledge of how to handle both historical and new costume. To work with costume, one should be familiar with social and fashion history, textile techniques, anatomy, textile conservation and exhibition techniques. As textile fibers are easily degraded by light, humidity, and pulling or hanging while stored or exhibited, special care must be taken to prevent permanent, disfiguring and destructive damage. Most important, before touching the museum object for any reason, always mentally ‘walk through’ what needs to be done before it is back in place. Practice ‘thinking before touching’.


Before handling costume

A mental walk through

Before handling costume, mentally ‘walk through’ what needs to be done before it is back in place:

Assess the piece’s date, construction, materials and state of preservation

Learn simple identification of textile fibers

Simple burn tests can often identify fibers used in fabric and threads but should only be undertaken by a conservator, if a single thread can be removed from the object.  There are a number of websites which give good advice about conducting a burn test: Fiber Reference Image Library, Threads Magazine: How to identify fabrics with a burn testFabric Identification the Burn Test.

Learning to recognize textile fibers in the microscope helps identify fibers and techniques

Learn what disintegrating textiles look like - some “damage” is historically important

Consider if the damage you see is a result of the following:

Decide what actions need to be taken and in which order:


Necessary materials for safe handling, storage, and transportation


Plan to have time to mount the dress properly for photography


Pattern taking 

Mounting costume for exhibition 





Helpful sources of information on handling costume

Karen Finch, The Care and Preservation of Textiles, London 1985.

Changing Views of Textile Conservation, ed. Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, Getty Institute 2011.

ICON, Institute of Conservation, UK: Care and conservation of accessories and costume

American Institute of Conservation: care of textiles; diverse information.

Canadian Conservation Institute, identification of fibers 

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute: How to handle antique textiles and costumes

Resource for fiber images: Fiber Reference Image Library

Australian Dress Register, with excellent articles and videos