Behind the Scenes: Fashion at the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin

Kunstgewerbemuseum, National Museums in Berlin

Discover how objects are stored and get an insight to the work of restorers and curators

The Fashion Collection of the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin
As the oldest of its kind in Germany the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin established in 1867 had already made significant acquisitions in the textile world in the early years of the museum. Collecting of garments started with the beginning of the 20th century, but by the end of World War II most of the collection was destroyed. Only in the 1970s collecting of garments started anew. With the acquisition of the internationally well reknown Kamer/Ruf fashion collection in 2003 the collection of the Kunstgewerbemuseum now documents 300 years of European fashion history with exceptional objects.

The Fashion Gallery

In the fashion gallery, a selection from the inventory is shown, from courtly rococo garments to the salon vestments of the Belle Époque and up to the couturier models of the last decade. The visitor strolls along large, illuminated display cases as it were, a panorama that impressively depicts the historic transformation in costume. Around 130 outfits spanning the 18th century to today are laid out in large showcases and accompanied by the appropriate footwear and accessories. But what happens behind the scenes?

In the depot the clothes are stored flat and wrapped in acid-free paper in boxes made from acid-free cardboard. Each box is marked with the inventory number of an item and may only be used for that item. To keep the room climate stable and avoid stress to the fabrics, there is no natural light and the temperature is cool. Great attention is paid to endure that no pests such as moths and other insects get into the room. This means that the clothing must be disinsectised before it is put in storage.

To use the space in the depot effectively, the same shelves are used as in archives. These run on rails and can be moved with a flywheel. Packed flat in their boxes, the clothes are well-protected and take up little space.

Mini Dress
around 1968

Items of clothing are also padded on the inside to prevent damage to the fabric, as is the case with this dress made from paper fleece with motifs by Andy Warhol.

Gala Dress “robe à la française”
Silk: France, gown: England, ca. 1775

Appliqués are also individually wrapped sometimes to prevent their damaging the fabric on top of them during storage.

Inventory list and location index

The inventory list and the location index are the most important archival documents in the museum. They list the locations of all the items of clothing with their inventory numbers along with descriptions of the object and information about its provenance. If a box has been stored in the wrong place or a dress has been put into the wrong box, all the shelves and boxes must be searched through.

The restoration workshop is where all the museum’s textile exhibits come to be restored and cleaned before they go into the exhibition. As well as clothing, these also include furniture with fabric upholstery. Damaged areas must first be examined and documented. The damaged parts are drawn on to a transparent sheet and photographed before being fixed to a new fabric underlay with the smallest of curved needles. Both layers of fabric have to be kept completely flat for this to avoid stretching and bulging. A daylight lamp is used so that every detail can be seen precisely.

The material

White threads and fabrics made of natural materials are used for restoration, and must first be dyed to match the exact shade of colour of each textile. Stable chemical dyes are used for the old textiles and matched to the colour shades of the natural dyes used in the relevant historical period.

Working with the microscope

Under the microscope it can be determined whether a textile is a canvas, twill or atlas weave, so that damaged parts can be repaired using the same kind of weave. Any defects in the weave or special features in the materials used also become visible, as is the case with this silk fabric from the 14th century.

Silk fabric
Italy, 14th century

The form shows the textile as the front half of a chasuble, a sleeveless priest garb. Since, in this application, the pattern of blossoms, tendrils and animals is upside down, a later secondary use of the material is assumed to have occurred.

Lion pattern

A peculiarity comes in the form of threads wound round with strips of gilded gut with which the lions were woven.

Under the microscope, the tarnished gold remains can be easily recognized.

Historic costume counts among the most ambitious items to exhibit in a museum. Similar to graphic and photographic works, it is very sensitive to light, maximal preservation during exhibition requires showcases wherein the items are protected from dust and in which they are presented with a minimum amount of light. Outfitting the showcases in non-toxic substances supports the material presentation of the items, the substantive message of which is the primary focus, and facilitates a concentrated consideration and examination of each piece. This approach is emphasized by the decision to display the garments on neutral, individually attuned busts.

The Mannequins

To exhibit fashion, mannequins suited to the display of a wide range of vestments that stem from the past three centuries are needed. These should furthermore satisfy both art historical and conservation requirements. Ideal display of the form and function of three-dimensional textiles such as costumes is predicated on bracing supports. A suitable mannequin lends the garment the required volume and presents it in its originally intended, three-dimensional form. The materials employed must be resistant to aging and cannot
emit harmful substances.

Taking measurements

It is crucial to first construct the volume of the figurine per the stipulations set forth by the costume. Along with essential measurements, such as breast, waist and hips, the increments between tucks in the dress and the ratio of the width of the back to the bust provide important information about the proportions of the wearer.

Basic form

Templates of the frontal and profile views of the body that correspond
to the measurements, which will serve as the basic form of the figure, are first drawn and then transferred to 10 cm-thick polyethylene foam plates. From right-angled wedges sawed from the centre to the body axis…

…the cuts must then be
laid cross-wise and glued together.

Lateral parts

Foam plates with a straight cut edge are then placed in the resulting lateral junctions and the contours of the frontal and profile silhouette are traced on to these.

The plate wedges are then cut with a band saw along those lines and then glued into their respective junctions.

Three-dimensional body

This results in a three-dimensional, voluminous body that indeed has the required silhouette, but the contours of which are too angular.

The edges are rounded off in multiple layers using a sharp knife and the figurine is modelled as long as necessary to remove any weight that might be carried by the garment that sits upon it.


This necessitates working symmetrically and constant re-measuring. Once the proper fit has been achieved irregularities created by the knife cuts must be smoothed.

Finalisation of the mannequin

The polyethylene foam figurine is used as a positive that is then coated in acid-free, chlorine-free paper until the paper reaches 2-3 mm thick. After drying the paper is cut down the centre of the back and removed from the positive form. The cut in the back must be carefully glued both inside and out. The neck area may be left open or be closed with a plate of acid-free board. Using a base plate affixed to the lower edge, the paper figure can then be fastened to a stand.

Areas not covered by the costume receive a coating of acrylic modelling paste, thereby evening out uneven areas in the crosswise-glued paper strips. The flat, structureless surface of the modelling paste falls visually back from the materiality of the costume.


Before the costumes are applied to the figures, the appropriate undergarments must be prepared. The skirts require a supporting substructure that provides the necessary width in the respective areas and based on the period from which the costume stems.


A simple way to create hoop skirts or crinolines is to affix vertically hanging bands with regularly interwoven loops onto a waistband and to draw steel hoops through the loops at given increments. Additionally applied frills ensure a softer drop of the fabric mounted upon it.


Underskirts should be pulled over all substructures with steel hoops so that the hoops do not leave any imprints upon the costume. The same applies to clothing with softly falling fabric cut on a diagonal grain. The fabric that falls beneath the figure constricts as a result of its diagonal grain, causing the lower edge of the figure to stand out clearly if no underskirt is used.

Walking Dress
England, ca. 1855

It is only after the conclusion of this preliminary work that the costumes be mounted.

Fashion of the 18th Century

The great light sensitivity and resultantly necessary brevity of textile exhibition soon calls for change in costumes and the development of a new exhibition concept. Thus begins the next cycle of preparation, from restoration and production of figures and undergarments to the presentation of costumes selected for the next exhibition.

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Merle Walter / Heidi Blöcher and Christine Waidenschlager in: Fashion Art Works, Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg 2014

Concept / Editing / Realisation: Merle Walter

Translation: allround Fremdsprachen GmbH von der Lühe, Berlin / Catherine Hales and Stephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz www.smb.museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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