Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell cares for and exhibits historical clothing, and she loves her job. She has an appreciation not only for the textiles and the displays, but also for the people who once wore them, even if they lived hundreds of years ago. Preserving those clothes helps us to know those people and what their lives were like.
Thanks to modern technology and the efforts of specialist textile scientists, curators can now appreciate historical garments in ways their original beholders and wearers could not. Polarizing microscopes and high-resolution digital images reveal textures, weaves, and threads invisible to the naked eye. Cutting-edge conservation treatments reinflate sleeves crushed by centuries of careless storage or restore shattered silk linings. X-rays reveal the complex interior boning of a Balenciaga evening gown, and military-grade chemical inhibitors remove aluminum corrosion on Neil Armstrong’s space suit.
But no amount of scientific analysis can capture the feel, sound, and smell of historic clothing—and that’s where costume curators and conservators (who are responsible for the technical examination and treatment of textiles) have a privileged perspective. We get to touch it. We enjoy intimate proximity with other people’s clothes, laid out on lab tables under lights and magnifying glasses like surgical patients, not in dimly illuminated public galleries where the objects are kept out of reach behind glass or velvet ropes. We find the hidden pockets; the discreet padding; the lingering whiff of perfume or tobacco. By the time they go on public display, we know them as well as the clothes on our own backs.
The article goes on to tell us about some of the nuts-and-bolts details of historic garment display. Read more about the work of a costume curator at The Atlantic.
(Image credit: Katie Posner)