HoW tO CaRE fOR vINTaGE ClOTHiNG LIkE a PrOFEssIONAl 

A Senior Shoe Curator and a Curator of Costume and Textiles reveal their secrets  

Words by Heather Gwyther 

Much like a newborn (or all babies for that matter), our debut vintage collection has us feeling all sorts of ways: pride, excitement, utter joy – generally, we are overwhelmed with positivity. Amongst those feelings of overwhelming positivity, however, lurk more challenging ones like pity and anxiety. The pity is obviously for our jealous detractors (they’re omnipresent), but the anxiety is about the fabulous vintage pieces themselves. How are we supposed to care for such unique – but often delicate and highly sentimental – items?

If there’s a demographic that knows the answer, it’s fashion curators. After all, conservation is a significant and constant part of the job. So, we spoke to Pauline Rushton, Head of Decorative Arts at National Museums Liverpool, and Rebecca Shawcross, Senior Shoe Curator at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, about exactly that. Here’s a professional guide to caring for both what’s vintage in your wardrobe now and what will be eventually. Special clothes require special approaches. 

HoW tO CaRE fOR vINTAgE cLOThES

CHOOSE WISELY

“We avoid accepting items which are in need of a lot of conservation in the first place (unless they are very rare pieces or very desirable for another reason) because conservation is expensive and takes a lot of time,” says Rushton. And the same can certainly be said for your personal collection. 

VIEW THEM AS ART 

As Rushton says, vintage clothes “are generally of a much better quality than clothing made in more recent decades and are sometimes works of art in their own right.” Keep this in mind and act accordingly!

TAKE TISSUE PAPER SERIOUSLY 

“Use acid-free tissue to wrap delicate items if storing them in drawers or boxes, not black tissue – it’s full of dye which could transfer over time,” Rushton tells us. 

BE MINDFUL OF MOULD

“If you need to store hanging garments in plastic bags to keep the dust off, don't seal the bag at the bottom as it creates a microclimate that encourages mould growth, especially on leather garments,” Rushton says. 

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK

“Don’t leave garments or textiles facing a window for any length of time as they will fade due to light exposure,” reveals Rushton. Furthermore, “always display textile pictures on a wall with windows in it as this receives the least light in a room.”

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO CONQUERING MOTHS (AND OTHER INSECTS)

“If you see evidence of a moth attack or beetle damage (small holes or the appearance of a gritty, sand-like substance called frass) put the item in a box, seal it in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer for a week – this will kill insects and their eggs,” Rushton states. 

“Carefully brush out any evidence of infestation after the garment has come back to room temperature,” she continues. “Use a very soft brush like a paint brush, or a hand-held vacuum (like a car vacuum) set on a low suction if necessary to gently remove bits, but put a piece of fine gauze over the pointed nozzle first and secure with a rubber band so that the suction does not damage the item,” Rushton finishes.   

CONSIDER YOUR HANGERS AND HANGING BAGS CAREFULLY

Rushton informs us that, for garments that can be hung, they should be “hung in wardrobes on padded hangers, ideally in calico bags to avoid them rubbing on each other”.

THINK ABOUT TEMPERATURE AND RELATIVE HUMIDITY 

“Temperature should be around 20°C and relative humidity between 40% and 60% - too cold and dry and you get cracking of certain material, too warm and humid and you get mould growth, so a balance always needs to be made,” Rushton explains. 

hOW tO CaRe FoR ViNtAGE sHOeS

CONSIDER NOT ACTUALLY WEARING THEM

“The first tip would be don’t wear them, which I know may create a dichotomy for many readers,” says Shawcross. “There are those people who buy vintage shoes to wear and those that buy to keep and collect. I guess anyone buying antique or vintage shoes would need to decide whether the enjoyment of wearing the shoes is greater than preserving them,” she continues. 

IF YOU CAN, INVEST IN TWO PAIRS 

“Sneaker collectors often buy two pairs, one to wear and one to keep boxfresh,” Shawcross tells us. 

BE CAREFUL WITH SUNLIGHT

“In general, antique shoes should never be kept in direct sunlight as both textile and leather shoes will fade,” says Shawcross. 

KEEP THINGS CONSTANT

“If possible, keep them in an environment that doesn’t fluctuate too much and is fairly steady, so no wild fluctuations in temperature or humidity” Shawcross explains. “The ideal environment is between 50% and 55% humidity, with a temperature of 18°C to 21°C,” she tells us.

GET SOME SUPPORT

“Depending on the style and robustness of the shoes, we support the shoe internally with acid-free tissue, taking care to support the upper, straps or buckles,” says Shawcross. “We don’t want to overstuff the shoe, pushing it out of shape, but just gently support any areas that require it,” she continues. “They are then packed using acid-free tissue cushioning in an acid free box,” Shawcross tells us. Civilians, take note. 

BE WARY OF PESTS

“Regularly check for pest – particularly moth – activity, which can be devastating for textile shoes,” Shawcross says. The Northampton Museum and Art Gallery even goes so far as to keep windows shut to avoid them.

BE SAVVY ABOUT WHAT SHOES ARE MORE LIKELY TO LAST

“Leather shoes actually survive pretty well,” says Shawcross. But “textile shoes can suffer from fading [and] silk is particularly prone to shredding,” she continues. Then, there’s the fact that “synthetic finishes to shoe uppers or the use of polyurethane soles are prone to cracking, becoming sticky or blooming.” Fear not, however: “research is underway about how best to deal with such examples,” Shawcross tells us.

STORAGE POSITION MATTERS

“Ideally, the shoes would sit on their soles, but depending on the height of the heel this is not always possible, so they sit in their box rather like shoes from a shoe shop,” says Shawcross. Strive for the same at home!

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