This summer we started a condition survey of the Historic Costume Collection. Our aim was to get a clear picture of what we have in the collection and how much of that is in exhibitable condition.
An inventory of this sort has been needed for a while. It became a priority, however, when learned that a sizable addition to the collection was imminent.
So, I with some help from my awesome intern, spent the summer looking through approximately 2,500 garments and accessories from the 19th and 20th centuries.
I used a scale I developed with Shirley Wajda to rank each item A-F. Grades were not assigned based on condition as much as they were based on the amount of work needed to make a garment suitable for exhibit and/or the garments viability as a teaching tool. “A” ranked garments were in good enough condition to be put on a mannequin without any need for a conservator. Those with an “F” grade were too fragile or damaged to be of use even a teaching samples.
These grades were put into a spreadsheet we developed, along with any relevant notes and a few other details.
This was a time consuming process. I found that, on average, I could evaluate 40 items a day. This varied somewhat, depending on what I was working on and how long it took to properly handle. However, even when physically I could go faster, I was only able to keep up the quality of my work if I stuck to less than 60 items a day. I did best when I was able to take a good 10 minutes to examine each item.
I adjusted the layout of the spreadsheet as I worked. By the end I managed to come up with a system that worked pretty well. My only regret is that I didn’t think to include the date of each item. While this information can be found in the catalog records, it would have been nice to be able to sort the spreadsheet by date at times.
On a more personal level, doing this survey was a wonderful experience. Being able to examine so many garments gave me a better sense of the possibilities for research with historic collections. It also helped solidify my desire to work with historic dress for many years to come.