Care and conservation of fashion accessories

Fashion accessories may be described as costume ephemera, usually made in a style or following a trend that is short-lived, only fashionable for a short time and thereafter cast aside for something new. Lace, shawls, muffs, artificial flowers and hair ornaments, umbrellas and parasols, scarves and even spectacles can all be described as fashion accessories but perhaps the most commonly found items are hats, bags, shoes, gloves and fans.

These types of object may be made from either natural or synthetic materials. Plastics, glass (e.g. beads), metals, rubber, fur, feathers, straw, wood, ivory, paper, wax (e.g. flowers), fabric-covered wire and beetle wings are but a few of the components that may be found together with silk, wool, cotton and other fibres. A common problem in conserving these items is that accessories are routinely made from combinations of many - often incompatible and highly degradable - materials.

Should I wear it?

Decide first on the “status” of the item. Are you happy for the accessory to be wholly expendable and for it to be treated as part of your everyday wardrobe - with a limited life? If you in any way value your costume accessories as historic objects and want them to survive for future generations, you should not wear them or in any way use them for their original purpose. Keep these two categories of items separate. Wearing, use and unnecessary handling all increase the risk of damage and loss by soiling or by stress damage to weak and fragile parts.

  • A conservator can give you advice on which items in your collection are vulnerable and how to look after them and handle them. They can also provide you with options for treatment and repair of damaged items.

Recognising signs of deterioration

  • Crushing, distortion and other physical damage is a common occurrence. Accessories are frequently 3-dimensional objects and may be damaged easily due to poor or inadequate storage. Organising and storing your collection properly can prevent this.
  • Light damage such as colour fading or embrittlement of textile or other organic parts.
  • Holes, frass and grazed surface areas where insects have eaten organic materials. Clothes moth, woodworm and biscuit beetle (“woolly bears”) are attracted to organic materials, particularly proteinaceous ones such as wool and silk. Moisture, dust and associated proteins such as foodstains, sweat or makeup will be additionally attractive to them.
  • Staining from degrading or corroding materials. Where an unstable plastic such as cellulose nitrate is part of the object, the acidic breakdown products of this material can stain and damage other parts. Corroding copper and iron components likewise. These effects are made worse in damp conditions or if the metal or plastic is in association with a more acidic material.
  • A wide variety of mould growths can grow on organic materials in particular. This occurs in damp and unventilated conditions and may lead to bad staining; mould also attracts insects.

  • Conservators (specialising in objects, textiles or metal, as appropriate) are trained and experienced in cleaning repairing and stabilising items with these types of damage. Prevention is better – and cheaper – than a cure, and there are steps you can take yourself to care for your collection of accessories.

What you can do to help - storage

Good storage conditions and adequate support for fragile and weak items will help ensure the stability of an object and will slow down its degradation. Store these items in the dark, and try to maintain a stable, non-fluctuating environment with even temperature and humidity not too damp or dry.

Organise your collection. Allow adequate space for the storage of each object and do not stack them on top of one another. Fans should be stored closed, in their boxes if present, or closed and wrapped in acid-free tissue. Polythene (polyethylene sheet or bags) should not be used as these attract dust and can trap insects, mould and dampness around the object. Instead use acid free materials (storage boxes, envelopes and tissue) or inert polyester.

Make a simple support for storing hats - from acid-free tissue fashioned into sausages and wads and used to pad out and support the shape of the hat. Hats should not be stored resting solely on their brim, as in time the crown will sink and become distorted down under its own weight or that of the trimmings. Gloves should be lightly padded with slender sausages of tissue inserted into the fingers. If gloves are stored flat for a long time there is a risk of hard creases forming to the fingers and sides of the glove. Other 3-dimensional accessories such as bags and shoes should also be lightly padded with tissue in order to hold them in shape, then wrapped in acid-free tissue.

The exception to this rule is any accessory made of plastic. In time the plasticiser may leach out of the compound causing the surface of the object to become sticky. Accessories made from these materials should be stored separately and given plenty of space and a free circulation of air.

Inspect all objects that are stored regularly, to check for insect pests and other forms of damage.

Consulting a conservator

  • A conservator can help you by carrying out a survey of your collection, item by item. This will also prioritise those objects which need special care, careful watching or immediate treatment and will save you time and expense in the longer term.
  • Conservation of costume accessories, particularly “mixed media” objects, can be very complex and you could do a lot of irreversible damage with “home” treatments, even simple cleaning. There is however a lot of useful preventive work that you can do safely, and a conservator can advise you on this.
  • Conservators can also design and manufacture supports and mounts for your objects to help keep them safe in storage or display conditions. They can give advice on what materials to use and how to make these mounts yourself.
  • Conservators are trained and skilled in cleaning, stabilising and repairing most types of materials. Don't worry if you are not sure which specialism of conservator to approach; any accredited conservator specialising in objects, metals or textiles for example will be able to give you basic initial advice about your needs.

Use the Conservation Register to Find a conservator.

© Icon, the Institute of Conservation 2011.

This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation. The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge use of the MGC publication 'Ours for Keeps' in the preparation of this text. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.

The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at www.royalcommission1851.org.uk.