Antique Clothing Is Always Just a Little Ghostly

Photo via Getty Images.
Photo via Getty Images.

Browsing a blockbuster museum exhibit featuring beautiful items of clothing from decades and even centuries past, it’s easy to see them as pieces of art, like a painting. But of course, they were once worn, nestled intimately against a body that’s now gone. Which may give you the faint feeling of a rabbit run over your grave.


At the Atlantic, fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about working with historic clothing as a “costume curator” for museum exhibits. She describes the faintly spooky aspects of her job:

There’s something transgressive about touching other people’s clothes—especially dead people’s clothes. Some would even call it spooky. As a costume curator and fashion historian, I have colleagues who swear that they have felt, and even seen, ghostly presences in their museums’ costume-storage areas. It’s easy to get the chills in those cramped rooms, which are climate-controlled to the ideal temperature and humidity for textiles, not for humans.... Occasionally I’ll find a stray hair, a frayed hem, or a telltale stain on an otherwise pristine garment carefully packed away for posterity in acid-free tissue paper and remember, with a jolt, that there was once a living, breathing, sweating human body inside it—a body that has been still for up to hundreds of years.

Which will stick with me the next time I’m squinting at an antique ball gown in the Met Museum, fellow New Yorkers jostling against me for their own closer look.

For those curious about the process of putting one of those exhibits as a costume curator, Chrisman-Campbell also describes her job: “a full answer involves mannequin mutilation and crotch-stuffing, writing and lecturing, bidding on eBay, researching history and art history, and honing a sense of style that both channels and transcends the sensibilities of any given era.” The piece is worth reading in full over at the Atlantic.

Senior Editor at Jezebel, specializing in books, royals, romance novels, houses, history, and the stories we tell about domesticity and femininity. Resident Windsor expert.



I have my dead neighbor’s military coat from his World War 2 service. He didn’t have children and was 91 when he died. I was friendly with him the last years of his life and helped him out some (his grouchiness put people off but he was really just sad and lonesome). He was 6'6" tall (Navy submarine service, can you imagine!). I don’t have problems getting rid of stuff but I have this giant 75 year old wool coat that I just can’t bear to jettison. We call it “Frank’s Navy coat.”