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Frequently Asked Questions


"Are these costumes made by Vassar students for plays in the Drama Department?"

No. The name of the Vassar College Costume Collection is misunderstood by many – the objects in our collection are not costumes made to be worn in a play, but rather clothing made to be worn for real life. These artifacts are actual clothing items worn decades ago, sometimes over 100 years ago, by real women and men, not performers. For many years, when Vassar alumnae and other community members cleaned out their closets and attics and found “old clothes” from their ancestors, they often brought these objects to us in the Drama department thinking that they could be worn as costumes. In fact, prior to this collection being set aside by Holly Hummel in the mid 1980’s, some of the objects were worn, and altered, as costumes for Drama department productions, or even for community fashion shows.
Now we know better. These items are far too fragile, and often too small, to be worn. Rather, we want them to survive as long as possible, as primary sources for student research.
So, don't let the term "costume" fool you - those of us who study clothing from the past refer to it as "costume history," but we're talking about real clothing, not just what was worn on stage.
"Why is everything so small?"
First of all, people were smaller 150 years ago. Among other factors, better nutrition has led to increased stature. Second of all, often smaller garments survive precisely because they were so small - perhaps they were quickly outgrown and therefore did not suffer much wear and tear.
"Why can't I touch the fabric?"
Even when your hands are very clean, there is natural oil on your hands that can transfer to the fabric and cause damage over time. We use clean white cotton gloves when handling the garments. Also, the fabrics are very fragile - even under the best conditions, they will slowly deteriorate over time. That is why these particular garments will never be worn again, as it would be too dangerous to their survival.
“Why haven’t the stains been cleaned on some of the garments?”
First the cleaning process (either wet cleaning or dry cleaning) can be dangerous to fragile textiles. To be done properly, it requires the care of a professional conservator. We hope to raise the funds to have a conservator clean some of our most precious objects. Second, some stains help tell the story of the garment – that spill may have been part of an important event, and cleaning it would remove some of the history of the garment. The goal is never to make something look brand new, but rather to respect its history and do what’s best to preserve it.  The decision to clean must be made carefully.

Frequently Asked Questions