Textiles and Costumes

The textile and costume conservation lab is responsible for the preservation and care of artifacts large and small. From the gowns of the first ladies to the National Quilt Collection to the Star-Spangled Banner and beyond.

The lab is staffed by a full-time senior textile and costume conservator, contract conservators, conservation technicians, and occasional interns and fellows that document, photograph, treat, and prepare textile- or fabric-based artifacts for exhibit or loan.


The textile and costume lab carries out treatments to ensure that textile-based artifacts are stable enough for handling and display.

before and after treatment detail of Korean, child hanbok
This child's hanbok (left) was treated by the conservation department for display in the exhibition Barriers to Bridges: Asian American Immigration. The collar was ripped and there were losses in the fabric (center). As you can see by the detailed after photo (right), the hanbok was less prone to further damage after treatment was completed.

A controlled environment is important for textile-based collections. High humidity can impact fabric causing mildew (white in appearance) or mold (black, blue, green, and/or red) to grow and develop foul odors. Over time, mildew and mold can deteriorate and rot fibers. 

Mildew on a collection jacket.
A jacket photographed before conservation treatment. Notice the white mildew present on the surface. Treatment involved removing mildew with a vacuum and soft bristled brushes.

Dust also poses a risk to textile-based collections because it is hygroscopic—it attracts moisture—which could lead to mildew and mold growth. Dust hides the true color of an artifact and may even attract pests.

Oil cloth hat before and after conservation treatment.
Oil cloth hat before and after treatment (left to right)

The 19th-century oil cloth hat above was treated for display in the exhibition On the WaterConservators used soft cosmetic sponges (below) to reduce embedded surface grime. They then re-shaped the hat by gently humidifying it and placing it on a polyethylene foam form with polyester batting.

cosmetic sponges before use.
Cosmetic sponges before use
cosmetic sponges.
Conservators use cosmetic sponges to remove soot and grime from delicate surfaces. These sponges were used to remove embedded grime from the 19th-century oil cloth hat pictured above.


Costume displays at the National Museum of American History have evolved over time. Costumes have been displayed flat, hanging, on rigid mannequins, and even on people!

George Washington's uniform displayed throughout the 20th (left and center) and 21st century (right).
George Washington's uniform displayed throughout the 20th (left and center) and 21st century (right)

Through trial and error, museum professionals have learned how different fabrics respond to factors like lighting, humidity, the physical stress of hanging or being on display, and the materials with which they come in contact. This research helps conservators understand and avoid the environmental factors that might cause damage to an artifact, either on display or in storage. Collections care is at the core of conservation.

Today, costumes are usually displayed on commercially manufactured mannequins made of polyethylene foam, which is chemically stable, light-weight, and easy to carve. Each mannequin is shaped and then padded with polyester batting, to build up details like musculature. Finally, a thin, stretchy fabric called stockinette is applied to create a smooth surface and hold the padding in place. The mannequin can be taken apart to make dressing it safer for the artifacts.

Modern male polyethylene foam mannequin modified to accommodate female shirtwaist.
Modern male polyethylene foam mannequin modified to accommodate early 1940s female military uniform jacket

Check out this presentation called Much-Ado-about Mannequins created by the Harry Ransom Center.

Mounting Benjamin Franklin's Three-Piece Silk Suit

To create a custom mannequin for the display of Benjamin Franklin's three-piece silk suit, Conservator Sunae Park Evans studied anatomical body shapes and postures of the period as well as social history and costume etiquettes of the 18th century. She took a series of measurements from an 18th-century male fiberglass mannequin and created paper patterns. She used these patterns to carve two-inch polyethylene foam disks, which she organized, stacked, and shaped. A muslin, plain weave cotton reproduction of the suit was purchased from an experienced, professional historic costume reproduction specialist. The suit is the exact shape and size of Benjamin Franklin's and Evans used it to alter the shape of the polyethylene foam mannequin (see images below). Using a reproduction suit to create the form minimized handling of the fragile original costume.

Benjamin Franklin's Three-Piece, Silk Suit
Benjamin Franklin's Three-Piece Silk Suit mounted on custom-made form

Historical Research

Conservators do historical research while they are examining an artifact. What they learn from researching and examining an item helps them to understand the current condition of the item and any possible changes that may have been made to it in the past.

Historical research also helps conservators understand how costumes were worn. Conservators study primary sources such as literature, paintings, photographs, etc. to determine the right posture and body shape necessary to achieve the correct fit of an historic costume. 

The length and curves of these waistcoats provide clues about who wore them and when.

Some historic costumes have been altered over time. For example, examine this photograph (left) of Mary Todd Lincoln taken around 1863.

Photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln (left) courtesy of the Library of Congress. Photograph of mounted costume (right) for display in the exhibition The First Ladies

Compare the image on the left with that on the right, which shows the same dress mounted for an exhibit at the National Museum of American History. Conservators confirmed through examination and historical research that Mary Todd Lincoln's dress was altered in the past for another individual. Notice the bertha collar, in the left picture, was removed and buttons now line the front of the bodice (right).


Rehousing is another common activity carried out in the conservation labs. Appropriate housing materials ensure that artifacts are stored safely and aren't exposed to harmful substances that might increase their rate of degradation. Also, proper housing allows researchers to access and view objects without handling them, which might potentially cause further damage.

political ribbons- old storage
Political ribbons before rehousing

These ribbons from the Political History collection were rehoused by summer interns in the textile and costume conservation lab. They were previously stored unsupported in archival plastic sleeves, which caused physical damage like wrinkles and permanent creases. Conservation interns mounted each ribbon on archival board covered with a rigid but supportive cushion of polyester batting and fabric. The mounted ribbons were then stored in a cabinet of flat, pull-out trays, where researchers can easily view them without needing to handle them.

mounted ribbons
Mounted political ribbons before being placed in storage

Related Blog Posts

Conserving the Star-Spangled Banner

Sunae Park Evans: First Lady of costume conservation

Conserving Sherman's flag

Preserving 100-year-old piece of silk and woman suffrage history

Jim Henson's puppets, reunited in the conservation lab

‘Puppetry In America’: Why Puppets Still Appeal in a Changing World

Caroline and Mary Harrison's Inaugural Gowns