Thursday, 5 March 2015

Displaying Costume - some hints & tips

Museum curator, Sam Bannerman, recently went on a trip to London and Bath to research costume displays in preparation for our summer exhibition Furs, feathers, frills and florals: four decades of fashion, 1919-1959. The trip was funded by the Art Fund’s Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant Programme.

Here, Sam shares some hints and tips for displaying costume. These hints and tips came about through visiting different costume displays and through discussions with Rosemary Harden of the Fashion Museum in Bath and Georgina Ripley of National Museums Scotland.
We invite feedback and would love to hear your own experiences of working with costume.

1. Tie in with visitors expectations.
An important point that Rosemary Harden highlighted is that you need to remember who your exhibition is for; an obvious point that is often overlooked once you get into the finer details of planning any exhibition.
Our exhibition will mainly be seen by tourists, many of whom will know that St Andrews is ‘the home of golf’. I was apprehensive about displaying a pair of plus 4s (golf trousers!) for various reasons, however Rosemary pointed out that our audience will expect them. As well as giving our audience what they expect, we can reel them in and then tell them something new with our other pieces.

This point particularly hit home the day after meeting with Rosemary. I was standing in the V&A’s Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014 exhibition and the majority of visitors were watching a film of royal weddings despite there being an array of stunning wedding dresses to ogle. Of course they were watching the film! This is exactly the kind of thing they expect and want to see when visiting London.
2. Ensure that you have the skills and materials to create the display. If not, scale it back.
This is a really important point. At the early stages of planning this exhibition, I had big, big ambitions that, if attempted, would have been too difficult with the resources available. Conduct an audit not only of the physical materials that you have, but also the skills that you and your team have.

3. Try not to over-crowd cases.
Presentation is vital. The display should not be over-crowded as this will detract from the costume. There’s a clear different between a creative, active display and a cluttered one. Take these two shop displays as an example:
Image taken from

Planning a costume exhibition is similar to window dressing – you are trying to attract people to your display. The first image appears crowded and somewhat uninteresting because the mannequins are static; they are in the same pose, at the same height, looking in the same direction. The second image has the same number of mannequins, however there is action. They are also interesting due to the variety of poses and different heights.
                         4. Make a scene!

Backdrops can really help tell the story of the costume being displayed. Take this display of post-WW2 Dior at the V&A. To emphasise the elegance of Dior's ‘New Look’, a decorative gold mirror has been mounted behind the costume. It is simple, yet it adds a touch of class in keeping with the style of costume.

 5. Create a colour spectrum.
Rosemary highlighted this point to me and afterwards I could not stop noticing it! Colour co-ordination is easier on the eye - it helps visitors to flit from costume to costume. Here’s an example from the V&A:

1930s display. As well as keeping to a colour spectrum, notice how the plain and print styles complement each other and have been laid out plain-print-plain-print. Print-print-plain-plain would result in the prints clashing with the plain outfits looking too similar if side by side. There’s an intentional flow using colour and pattern, height, and careful positioning of mannequins.

Here is an example from the Fashion Museum in Bath:

Dior display. Green, pink and cream make up this colour spectrum, with the dress in the centre incorporating the green from the dress on the left and the cream from the dress on the right
With special thanks to the Art Fund, Rosemary Harden (Fashion Museum, Bath) and Georgina Ripley (National Museums Scotland).


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