Research on Antiques & Collectibles

ANTIQUE CLOTHING: Tips for Collectors and Dealers

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Space, in the form of attics, trunkrooms and cupboards, allowed people of the past to lay away their clothing. Items were saved because they belonged to a much-loved person, or because the costly fabric could be reused, or because the mores of the time ruled that one did not discard what one owned. Thanks to that squirrel-like mentality, collectors may specialize (bodices, corsets, hats or shoes, for example) according to whim. Certain aesthetes select clothing very much as they would paintings and even appreciate it in much the same way - framed (but under glass). Museums collect according to the image they wish to present to the public. Historical houses want the possessions of former residents, both masters and servants. Antique clothing can be an Art of the finest expression of what people wore at a certain time and place. Most Collectors, unless specialized in this genre, do not collect theatrical costumes and uniforms.

Working-class clothing is exceptionally rare; poor people of earlier times simply wore their everyday clothes to rags. What they may have saved would be their "Sunday best," such as heavily-embroidered peasant costumes, many cuts above ordinary wear. Some collections include examples of what workers wore in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, a servant's dress from the mid-nineteenth century would perhaps cost no more than a fine lady's gown of the same period.

Antique Clothing prices vary wildly. Collectors and dealers are reluctant to generalize on prices but if such a garment were in good condition, $500 would be a reasonable speculation. People now know the value of rare pieces, pay accordingly. Other pieces fetch little because of insufficient quality, duplication or poor condition.

Eighteenth-century men's clothing is not particularly rare, but nineteenth-century menswear is. Particularly Embroidered waistcoats were glamorous, so they were kept, but the somber clothing of the nineteenth century was not. Some experts said that even men of wealth wore out their coats and breeches, and a complete suit from the eighteenth century - if you could find it - would cost more than $1,500.

Most dealers and serious collectors are reticent about their sources of supply. They won't divulge them for fear of attracting competition to an already tight market. Their advice to the beginning collector ranges from "ask museums for referrals to dealer" to "find a dealer you trust, and stick there" to "attend sales - rummage, yard or jumble." Some collectors say that estate sales are a good source, especially if you know that the owner was a clotheshorse, for example if she had a great interest in fashion she'll probably have kept her best, and maybe her mother's as well.

To wear or not to wear is very much the question in the antique-clothing field. Museums and many private collectors forbid wearing, even for photography. The risk of damage is too great. Some high-end dealers choose their wearing clientele selectively.

Some antique clothing enthusiasts maintain two collections. In the historical group can be a rare assemblage of gloves, a dress of Martha Washington's, and gowns of Queens Victoria and Alexandra, the Empress Eugenie, and Marie Antoinette. The other group, some durable things without special significance, some of which are destined to be for rent to movies and television. Some collectors’ antique clothing have been used in such movies as ‘The Champ’, ‘The Other Side of Midnight’, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘The Immigrants’, the award-winning television show ‘Eleanor and Franklin’, ‘Gone With the Wind’ – and many others.

It is important that collectors of antique clothing build up a network of contacts. Many do most of their buying in New York, London, Paris and Vienna, or embark on specialized trips to Europe just to buy period ribbons and laces. Sources for the trimmings are not necessarily different from those for costumes, but trim in good condition is difficult to find - and necessary. Many collectors will also replace worn linings with appropriate antique fabric in fine repair.

Given the reluctance of collectors to mention cost, a novice would do well to consult recent Auction catalogues as a guide to current values. Most auctions’ estimates accompany the description of each lot. There is no single criterion for judging the value of old clothing. Venerability, of course, is a factor.

But with just a relative handful of clothes going back to the seventeenth century or earlier, collecting for all practical purposes begins with the eighteenth century. Even there, for the collector anxious to concentrate in one area, American clothing of the period is in short supply.

Condition very much affects the worth of the garment; very few eighteenth-century pieces have not been touched, and a gown that was altered for fashion or a changing figure even in its own time is not as valuable as a comparable one left unaltered.

For many collectors, clothing that belonged to a famous person has added worth. Queen Victoria's things - they can be identified by her embroidered cipher - are large, unfashionable and costly.

Couture poses its own problems; collectors must be able to distinguish between a great work that changed fashion's direction - such as a marvelous example of Dior's New Look - and a well-made garment from the same house that is of no historic interest.

Collectors learn to be stitch detectives, too. The crude work of some early sewing machines looks, even on close scrutiny, very much like hand sewing. It is also important to spot damage or if a dress has been 'bitched' - that is, pulled about and unsure of its parentage. It also takes patience and determination, since museums will not give appraisals and a few dealers do so only reluctantly.

Interestingly, Japanese collectors avidly snap up European and American museum-quality apparel – and they should know since their Textile Industry along with their Porcelain and other Ceramics creativity, have made huge contributions to the planet’s aesthetic tradition and evolution. Increasingly, fine examples of old clothes are moving out of the attic and into museums, historical societies or the hands of private collectors. Many different reasons have spurred the interest in collecting antique clothing. Some collectors call it nostalgia for vanished craftsmanship. Others see it as recognition of clothing as an excellent social document. And others say it provides a historical perspective that permits us to value certain garments as true expressions of the art of their periods.

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