Museum-employed garment conservators aren't likely to be spotted on the front row at fashion week. But as fashion's links to environmental damage and climate change become increasingly urgent, professionals who are specially skilled in making clothing last longer may have a unique role to play in the fight against a throwaway clothing culture.
Ann Coppinger, senior conservator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, specializes in prolonging the life of clothes in museum collections. Coppinger is in charge of caring for a collection of over 50,000 objects dating back to the early 1700s that includes men and women's clothing, accessories, shoes, hats and more.
"There are many stories that can be derived from the artifacts," Coppinger explains. "They're little time capsules, the product of the time and place in which they were made and created."
It is because of the stories clothes can tell — about fashion as art and about dress as history — that so many museums devote time and resources to conserving these artifacts. And it is their ability to make clothing last for centuries that make conservators such valuable contributors to the conversation about a more sustainable fashion system.
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Sarah Scaturro, who was in charge of the conservation lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute from 2012 until earlier this year when she left to join the Cleveland Museum of Art as their chief conservator, explains that the best place to start when it comes to prolonging the lifespan of clothing is by seeking to understand the garment in question. What is it made of? What are the essential properties of the garment that need to be preserved? These questions will necessarily lead conservators somewhere different than consumers.
This is true in part, FIT's Coppinger adds, because "when something winds up being in the museum, it's sort of an unstated rule that it will never be worn again."
She explains that the repairs required to keep an item wearable differ significantly from the more cautious repairs museum conservators would make. For example, conservators would never alter a museum item to fit a mannequin better, but altering your own clothing for fit could be a good move from a sustainability standpoint if it makes you more likely to wear what you already own.
Laundering is another arena where one might find significant differences between caring for archival-quality clothing and day-to-day clothing, explains Antjie Newman, a curator at the Museum of African American History and Culture (home to the Black Fashion Museum collection). Whereas everyday clothes are meant to be washed frequently, conservators are more cautious, says Newman, and might opt not to remove stains, since they can constitute historical evidence.
Both conservators and consumers need to understand the materials that make up their collections so they can store and care for their items accordingly. Coppinger, Scaturro and Newman all identify light, humidity, storage and pest control as crucial considerations for museum collections and personal closets. Scaturro explains that maintaining a stable environment is crucial in the museum setting — 70 degrees and 50% relative humidity is the goal. Obviously, that's harder to maintain outside a museum environment, but the point is that temperature- and moisture-stable settings are best for storing clothes.
When storing clothes at home, Newman explains that they should be kept away from dust, heat, moisture and light, which means they shouldn't be stored in attics, basements or near outside walls.
In a museum, proper storage involves archival boxes and tissue paper, which are made of materials free of acid that could damage textiles over time. That might be useful at home, too, for particularly special items that will be in storage for a long time (think: your grandmother's wedding dress).
For clothes that are just hanging in your closet, there are some easy ways to take better care of them. Scaturro says not to use the wire hangers you might get from the dry cleaner, and Coppinger notes that padded hangers are likely a good idea (for the museum collection, she says, they make their own padded hangers in-house). It's also wise to take clothes out of plastic dry cleaner bags, which block air flow.
"If you did want to keep clothes in a dust bag, which is a great idea, you should definitely be using an unbleached cotton muslin or some sort of sheeting, like cotton sheeting," Scaturro says.
Storing clothes in the appropriate way for the particular item also means knowing what can be hung and what needs to be stored flat.
"You wouldn't hang knits, or anything that's bias [cut]," Scaturro says, "or anything like a heavily beaded dress... you wouldn't want to hang those over time, because you would start to see distortion and damage."
Keeping storage spaces clean is important, too. Scaturro notes that cleanliness — rather than moth balls or cedar — is the best way to prevent insect infestations. She says that museums vacuum extensively, and that at home, you should "vacuum out your closets, vacuum the corners and remove all the dust before you put clothes into long term storage," making sure to remove stains or "any kind of food material that might be an attraction to the pests."
Understanding clothing from a conservator's perspective suggests a way of moving beyond a view of fashion as disposable. Perhaps it's not surprising coming from a conservator, but Scaturro doesn't exactly participate in fast fashion's throwaway culture.
"I hold onto my things forever," she says. "I don't really dispose of things."
Coppinger and Scaturro both embrace buying fewer, better quality pieces and keeping them as long as possible, and Coppinger points to re-sale and secondhand shopping as a positive approach to getting dressed. Scaturro's personal ethic involves taking special care of the clothing she has.
"I definitely maintain my clothes in a way that aims to prolong their life through the kinds of cleaning I do, or airing out, or the kinds of storage," she says. "I mend my clothes if I find something a problem and I try to do stain removal."
Still, you don't have to be specially trained to keep your clothes around longer. From Coppinger's point of view, it's as simple as choosing to hang up clothing carefully when you take it off rather than tossing it into piles on the floor. She also advises wearing clothes a few more times than you might be used to before washing (though she notes, "I'm not talking about workout clothing").
"Just be careful with your clothing and don't wear it too hard and take care of it, and it'll last," she advises.