Hundreds of headless human forms stood inside the room. Tall and svelte, stocky and big, waists cinched in, some legless and some just torsos without any limbs. Chopped heads were kept on a shelf in the corner. Further inside, two women were dressing up another body. The dress looked familiar – it was the pink dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffiny’s.
This strange, dream-like world lies in the basement of the Gemeente Musuem Den Haag. A storage room down a long corridor, where hundreds of mannequins stand in wait for their turn in the sun.Madelief Hohé, the fashion curator of the museum, gave us a glimpse of the fascinating behind-the-scenes world of costume and history. The day we visited, they were dressing up mannequins in Audrey Hepburn’s clothes from their collection. The iconic pink Givenchy dress was among them. “It’s not for an exhibition, but for a Japanese filmmaker who is making a documentary on Hepburn. They read about our collection and wanted to include these dresses in their film,” explains Hohé.
The mannequins had to be carefully chosen to match Hepburn’s tiny waist from her younger days and her body from later years. Thankfully, the museum had hundreds of mannequins to choose from. Some of them are historic pieces in their own right. There was a couture body that once belonged to a Parisian doll house and some tall, couture models from John Galliano’s collection.
The costume collection of the museum is among the largest and most comprehensive in the world. It includes over 10,000 fashion prints and drawings, and over 45,000 items of clothing and accessories. The oldest costumes date back to 1750, while the accessories and drawings go as far back as the 1600s.
Preservation, however, is tricky. “The temperature and humidity required is similar to that of paintings, around 18-20 degrees. While costumes in good condition can be hung, the older ones are usually laid out in a costume box. The one here was specially designed in the 1980s,” explains Hohé.
Whenever a new costume is acquired (bought, loaned or donated), it is first put in a deep freeze to ensure that any bacteria is killed. Restorers then carefully scan the fabric to document its condition and decide how best it can be kept. “We are very lucky that we now have all these facilities in-house, from preservation to photography, everything can be done on the premises.”
Sadly, not everything can be kept on display. “Costumes are very vulnerable, so we don’t keep an exhibition on for longer than 6 months,” says Hohé. This doesn’t mean that they lie forgotten. Researchers, fashion designers, students of history and other interested parties often request a private viewing to study the garments.
Hohé explains that the museum hosts an annual show each year focussing on a specific period or designer. A show takes about a year to put together, from choosing/acquiring pieces, to the catalogue and so on. Last year, they hosted an exhibition on 50s fashion, called Fabulous Fifties and next year they will host a show on 19th century costumes.From October 2013 to February 2014, they are hosting The Chanel Legend, a retrospective on Coco Chanel and the fashion label’s designs. Being held in collaboration with a German museum, the exhibition includes designs from the 1920s onwards and accessories such as an original 1921 bottle of Chanel No.5.
The mannequins in the basement will start getting ready for their big outing in September.
I thought I heard them whisper that they can’t wait!
This article was part of a series written for The Underground The Hague. It was published in September 2013.