Nordiska museet (“The Swedish Victoria & Albert museum”) has a fairly new permanent costume gallery, but space is limited and the costume collection is extensive, so obviously there is much more in storage. So imagine the thrill when they arranged a handling session last week with garments from the empire era. Needless to say I was there early, but there was already an exited crowd outside the door. It was nice to find several friends among them so we chatted while waiting for our turn.
The chosen garments were laid out on tables and anybody who wanted to take a closer look was provided with cotton gloves. (Yes we were actually allowed to touch them, supervised by the helpful conservators.)
The first thing that caught my attention was this elegant stock:
It was great to see this dark blue tailcoat (1820-40). A tailor-made masterpiece like this should be seen on a person or at least a mannequin, laid out on a table did not quite do it justice. Anyway, the coat had many details that are characteristic for the era: m-notch lapels, double-breasted closure, slightly gathered sleeves, bell-shaped cuffs with one button – understated elegance. Again the condition was so good it could have been brand new. Here is the link to the database (where I borrowed the image below, because it was difficult to take any decent photographs).
A not so well preserved garment was this striped silk and linen waistcoat:
I also noticed that the back, made of linen, was unlined. A showy piece of garment, rather than something to keep you warm!
One highlight was this shirt, or THE shirt. It was of a very fine quality, both in material and the way it was made, most likely by a skilled (professional?) seamstress/tailor. Every stitch was incredibly fine and most seams were flat-felled.
Something for the ladies: an evening gown, ca 1815-20. A fresh light blue silk, with cream-coloured trim.
There were three or four other gowns, chemises, a couple of frilled caps, and a pair of slippers.
Insights and conclusions? Well, as always I have the deepest respect for the amount of work that went into making clothes before industrialisation. You could not just walk in to a shop and buy clothes off the rack. It took some time and consideration to invest in new clothes. People in general had to make do and mend.
I am always impressed by the fine materials that were used and the microscopic yet perfect stitches they were able to make. And it is interesting to see the unfinished seams and surprisingly crude stitches on the inside. (We do like shortcuts, don´t we?)
Books, the internet, reproductions, and film costumes are good sources, but seeing the primary source – the real thing – with your own eyes is invaluable. (As long as you are aware of the limitations in terms of styling, proper underpinnings, posture, hairstyles, social status, etc.) But if you, like me, do not own a costume collection, do visit a museum now and then!