Monday, June 2, 2014

The Importance of Antique Garments

It seems to be with a general groan that the historical costuming community peruses Ebay, shaking fists at sellers who suggest that a worn Edwardian gown could be cut up and made into doll clothes, or screaming at the monitor at the countless 1920's dresses whose fragile silk shoulders are suspended from thin, plastic hangers.

Of course, not everyone has a background or interest in history or historical fashion. However, the widespread neglect and disregard of antique garments--those fragments of the past that are endlessly teaching us--seems disturbingly prevalent.

Consider my horror when I innocently scrolled past this on Tumblr. The 9th Street Haberdashery is a vintage clothing store in New York City. I am by no means trying to attack their store; these photos are merely a recent, relevant example of many I could have chosen from the internet. Their new window display features a collection of hand tie-dyed clothing from the early 20th century:

From left to right: Chemise (teens/1920s), Camisole/Corset Cover (Edwardian), Slip/Nightgown (1930s), Blouse (WWI), Pants (1930-40s), Camisole/Corset Cover (Edwardian)
Clockwise from left: Camisole/Corset Cover (Edwardian), Chemise (teens/1920s), Camisole/Corset Cover (Edwardian)
At one point in time, one person gathered these unique, handmade, and historically significant garments and had an afternoon of Holly Hobby-esque crafting. Why did they sell their clothes to a secondhand shop? Perhaps because they realized their craft project was too hideous to actually wear.

Another example, from the same store:

This "Amazing 1930’s perfect condition cotton crochet skirt and top set" is a unique and stunning piece, and it's long lifespan is a testament to the skillful hands which made it. But just a month later, the following photo was uploaded, captioned "This is what happens when you leave a perfect #1930’s crochet set too close to a light. Fire! #newhalloweencostume".

A unique garment, forever damaged by a moment of carelessness.

Think about it: how often will someone walk into a secondhand shop, purchase an antique painting, and spraypaint over it? Slice it into decoupage strips? Use it as a tea tray?

Why is it that antique items such as paintings, books, furniture, and decorative items receive more reverence and respect than antique clothing and textiles? Is it that we've become such a throw-away society, consumed by fast fashion, that even antique garments have become dispensable and disposable?

Antique clothing is a window to the past: it is tangible in the way that art (abstract and limited to the wealthy) sometimes is not. Everyone wore clothes. Every garment has a story, a connection. Every garment can make understanding the social, political, and economical changes in history easier.

One hundred years ago, closets and dressers and bureaus were not as packed with clothing as today. Even the well-off wore beloved outfits repeatedly, even altering them to fit current fashions. In our fast-paced, fast-fashion society, this can be difficult to grasp, and thus the rarity of an antique garment can be overlooked.

It is necessary that we spread awareness of the social importance of antique garments. Antique garments should be protected and nurtured, not worn by Manhattan hipsters or shredded into scrapbooking materials. These clothes should be sheltered and preserved, giving them a safe and happy home for the rest of their lives as they continue to teach us about ourselves.

If these last crumbling, fading, shattering fibers of history become lost forever, we will lose an important link with our ancestors and our own human history.


  1. Is it terrible that I would buy and wear all those gorgeous tie dyed Edwardian clothes? (Assuming they were in wearable condition)

    One of my friends runs a Vintage shop, sometimes people come in and say things like, 'oh I had no idea there was a market for this stuff, my mother died a year ago and we put all her stuff out for trash collection.' She says so many old women don't let go of their items until they die and then their families often don't realise the value. It's very sad, all those lovely items getting thrown away!

    1. Laura, I love your sense of style and I'm sure you could pull off that look while also appreciating the historical value of these pieces!

  2. Back when I lived near Boston, I knew a man who cleaned out people's homes after family members had passed. He had no idea what to do with the clothes, so he threw them away. I ended up with a few garbage bags full of hats and clothes, but most were so badly damaged and mildewed that they were ruined anyway. It was truly sad.

  3. Very good post! It really bothers me too. There's no reason at all for so many people to treat antique clothing as worthless - I've had people suggest to me that "it was intended to be worn, so it should be worn until it falls apart," but as you point out, if that's not applied to other antiques, why should it be applied to clothing? If we don't respect these artifacts, we won't have any left.

    My rule of thumb is that if it's in truly wearable condition (not shattering or tearing at all), it's a 1-in-100 surviving piece and should be protected and displayed in a museum; if it's not wearable, it's not wearable, don't wear it.

    1. Thank you! It's like "Wow, this antique table would make a great surface to sharpen my knife on! After all, it's meant to be used!"

      Taking pieces that are already damaged beyond help and preserving them through art is one thing. I saw someone once slice into her grandmother's pristine Edwardian lawn gown for crafting materials. Why not preserve the memory of your grandmother by having the dress framed instead?