BA Fashion and Dress History student, Josie Stewart, explains her recent activities as a volunteer at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, London.
Founded in 2003 by British designer Zandra Rhodes, the Fashion and Textiles Museum (FTM) has since been bought by Newham College, yet Rhodes maintains a close connection as her studio is located within the building. In 2019 that link has been reinforced with the Museum hosting a new exhibition, Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous, celebrating the designer’s illustrious career. As the Museum displays temporary shows rather a permanent collection, the gallery space is transformed in a quick turnaround of three weeks in between exhibitions by a small team of museum staff and volunteers (Fig. 1).
I have been a volunteer at FTM since 2017. Tasks for exhibition preparation include a lot of odd jobs such as ironing and steaming pieces and assembling mannequins, but it’s also a great opportunity to learn more about conserving and displaying.
The previous display was Weavers of the Clouds: Textile Arts of Peru (Fig.2), featuring a range of traditional and contemporary Peruvian garments and art, all of which now had to be dismantled. Everything was carefully placed within layers of tissue and stored in cardboard boxes ready to either be sent back to where it was borrowed from or sent off to a new place to be displayed there.
In the case of the Peruvian textiles, many items were sent back to private collectors. Some items, such as this feather sculpture (Fig.3), are more prone to damage from pests especially if they have any woollen elements to them. Before they’re packed away, they must be checked over to ensure they’re in the same condition they were at the start of the exhibition, which is all documented in a condition report that is filled out at the beginning and end of its time on display. Pests to look for out include the tiny but troublesome larvae of webbing clothes moths and case-making clothes moths, who embed themselves within the fabric, so a thorough eye is needed to spot them. Luckily none were found within this sculpture, so it was good to go.
Handling garments is the most rewarding part of all – a Fashion and Dress History student’s dream! Condition reports were done for the Zandra pieces (Fig.4), but as most of them date from the 1970s onwards they weren’t in bad condition – just the odd rip or stain. Although they were not particularly delicate, care still had to be taken so pieces couldn’t be picked up by the seams and no pens could be used near them.
It was really fascinating to see the garments up close and how they were constructed, particularly the ‘Knitted Circle’ dress and ‘73/44’ dress. A personal favourite was a costume worn by Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (Fig.5), recreated by Rhodes for the film based on pieces she had originally made for Freddie Mercury.
There is also a small FTM display of Norman Hartnell dresses from the 1950s-60s that I prepared with another volunteer. Most of these pieces had sequins, which would melt under a steamer, so instead we lightly used a hair dryer to remove them. These dresses were very fragile – they looked like they had some fun stories to tell!
Some garments had to be pinned into place because of loose straps or to help them fit better on the dress forms. For this, entomology pins are used, which are the same ones used to pin insects in collections, as they’re less visible and more suited for delicate materials. We also put petticoats under some of the dresses to give them a bit of extra shape (Fig.6).
It’s always exciting to see the gallery transform between exhibitions and it’s a chance to learn and develop a variety of invaluable, transferable skills in the handling and exhibiting of artefacts that you can’t really get without direct museum and gallery experience. I would recommend volunteering to anyone, whether you want to work in the heritage sector or not, as the experience you gain can be applied to all sorts of careers.
All images by Josie Stewart, with kind permission of Gill Cochrane, Touring and Collections Officer, Fashion and Textile Museum.