Visiting the Costume Collection of the Rijksmuseum

By Javier Gimeno Martínez


The module Fashion History and Theory includes an excursion to a fashion collection in the Netherlands. Even when classes are profusely illustrated with images, there are aspects that can be only understood by direct observation of the garments themselves. Construction, texture, assemblage and even the sound of the fabric when moving are all things that make garments unique.

Our visit to the depot of the Rijksmuseum on 6th December was led by the keeper of costume Bianca du Mortier and textile conservator Mieke Albers. Their class followed a logical sequence that started with the body, followed with the underwear and ended with outerwear; including examples from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ideal body has taken different shapes across the centuries. In order for clothing to be displayed properly, different mannequins are used depending on the period. Eighteenth century dresses require a straight back and conical torso, early nineteenth-century dresses a pushed-up bosom and early twentieth-century ones were worn with the ‘droit-devant’ corset that projected the bosom to the fore and the hips to the back. The pre-formed mannequins used by the Rijksmuseum are those developed by the Kyoto Costume Institute and the New York Metropolitan Museum. They are rigid translation of those modelled flexible bodies.

img_4723Underwear has contributed to shape these bodies giving a fashionable shape to the bosom, accentuating the waist and giving volume to the skirts. In our visit, we could see eighteenth-century stays with a broad wooden busk at the back and reinforced with balleines. Students were even able to touch a replica and appreciate its stiffness. Also from the same century, a panier made of fabric and wooden hoops gave their characteristic shape to the skirts of the period, i.e. flat at the front and the back and extremely wide at the hips. Dating from the nineteenth-century, we could see a crinoline made of horse hair. This material gave rigidity to an underskirt that provided a bell-shape form to the skirts from the 1840s and 1850s. Later in the century, a ‘queue’ or tournure displaced the volume of the skirts towards the back. Ingenious mechanisms allowed women to move and sit with them. Corsets in this period were not as conical as in the eighteenth century but accentuated the difference between waist and hips.


img_4732We could admire two examples of ‘robe a la française’ also known as ‘robe à plis Watteau’, a characteristic eighteenth-century dress with its typical fold at the back. Du Mortier explained that the abundance of cloth had to do partly with a desire for ostentation, since textile was precious, and partly with gild regulations. Seamstresses were restricted in the amount of cloth that they were able to cut and therefore worked rather with folding and sewing. The same strict regulations had an influence on how garments were constructed. Firstly, they were embroidered and then assembled, since both embroiders and seamstresses belonged to different guilds, sometimes having little contact between them. Nevertheless, embroiders knew how to advance how the final design would look like making the cloth match when assembled. Thus, their designs run across different cloth breadths as in wall-paper. Albers could show us different techniques implemented in one single garment, from some that went through the cloth and the lining to others that ‘floated’ on the fabric.


img_4730The third garment was a men’s jacket from the second half of the 18th century, whose fabric had been equally embroidered before assemblage. One could appreciate that the shoulder seam ran diagonally from the neck to halfway the back of the shoulder, joining there the sleeve seam. Moreover, the armhole was more displaced towards the centre of the back than contemporary sleeves. The outcome was a jacket with a very narrow back panel that made the wearer bring the shoulder blades together. The resulting posture was thus characterised by a straight back and a pronounced chest towards the fore. Indications on how garments were worn, tell about the etiquette of the time. Both underwear and outerwear might be seen as restrictive and uncomfortable today but kept the wearers in a fashionable pose, avoiding clumsiness stemming from relaxation or the absence of a well-structured body.

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