In a Box, With Tissue Paper

In a Box, With Tissue Paper

If you visit the Better Dresses Vintage Facebook Page you know I've been cobbling together a variety of outfits to wear to various costumed events, reenactments, and casting calls. Much of this activity was inspired by my friend Kat, but she didn't have to twist my arm.

I've always loved both dressing up and playing "dress-up." And of course I wear plenty of vintage on a daily basis, mixed in with modern clothes. Recently, however, I've been buying both reproduction and original antique garments and accessories. Not for collecting. I intend to wear and use them.

Some, like this reproduction Civil War ball gown, I actually need. I've joined Kat's historic dance troupe, and performers must wear period-correct clothing for the demonstrations

The above ensemble is a mix of old and new. Reproduction dress (with antique trim), hoop, and over-petticoat. Modern "stockings" (aka knee socks), shoes, and jewelry. But I'm carrying an antique hand fan, and beneath the reproduction corset and chemise are antique open drawers:

That outfit has already seen good use. I'll have to find or create places to wear the others. But I will wear them. Do you think I shouldn't? Because last week I had the strangest, most unpleasant experience.

I was trolling Etsy for antique underthings to wear beneath this original 1890s wool dress I'd just bought from an online seller:

I already had an antique corset cover to go over my modern late-Victorian corset. But I needed a late-Victorian chemise to wear underneath, as corsets generally aren't worn directly against the skin. Plus, they're really pretty.

I found one on Etsy. It was among several dozen that turned up in my search. There were many more on eBay. I was only looking at the lower-priced models, under $50.

I emailed the shop owner to inquire about the armscye, because antique clothing is often too tight on the arms of modern women. The shop owner's reply was very odd. She said, in a pleading and scolding sort of way, that I musn't wear the chemise.

Instead, I "should use it to create a pattern to make a new one, and then store it away in a box, with tissue paper."

OK, first, did she mean an archival box, with acid- and lignin-free tissue paper, like this kit available at Archival Methods?

archival box

Because if not, she's condemning the chemise to swift destruction by wood acids. Ironic. But more important, what sort of thing is that for a seller to say to a potential buyer? I wrote back with the following argument:

1. This is not a museum-quality artifact. Nor is it a prime example of workmanship, or of a particular era or style. It's just another antique chemise with mediocre construction details and minor flaws. There are many far-superior examples safely housed in museums around the world, on view for future generations to see, admire, and learn from. 

2. As a reputable and trusted seller, I'm charged with preserving vintage in its original state whenever possible. I'd never purposely alter or damage the chemise. But I see no need to save it for posterity. If I wear it -- especially to living history events -- people will see it and learn from it. Stowing it in my closet means the only one to benefit, albeit minimally, is me. How is that preferable?

I then compared her wanting me to box up the chemise to the local animal shelter refusing to allow me to adopt a cat if I ever allowed it outdoors. They would prefer that the cat spend its entire life in a cage in a windowless room than risk any shortening of its lifespan by doing what cats are meant to do. Like this seller, the "cat lovers" see no irony in their stance. They would prefer a long, unhappy life to a potentially shorter, but richer, happier, and more natural one.

When I related the seller's comments to Mr. BDV, he came up with the identical animal shelter comparison! Guess that's why we're compatible. 

Anyway, the seller rebuffed my caged-cat argument by observing that animals are living things and clothing is not. True. But doesn't that make an even stronger argument against caging the chemise? Shortening the life of an undershirt seems the less heinous crime, no?

3. If you don't want your item worn, don't sell it. Put it "in a box, with tissue paper" in your own closet. And then start writing letters to every museum that deaccessions items, every auction house that sells far-better examples of far-rarer textiles, and tell them they are doing wrong. Because those museums and auction houses cannot control what happens to the items once the auction gavel drops.

She begged me not to buy her items. I replied that I had no desire to cause her anxiety or stress, and that I would look elsewhere for my chemise, and suggested that she rethink her stance, as she cannot control what buyers do with their purchases.

In my own listings, I often suggest using reversible methods for any needed alternations. If you want to take in a seam or shorten a hem, "please fold or tuck, don't cut." But these are suggestions, not demands. Once you buy an item, it's yours. What you do with it is entirely your business. It is literally out of my hands.

I cringe when I see antique petticoats with only minimal, reparable damage being sold as "cutters" or "for upcycling" or as fabric for doll clothes. I'd never suggest a salvageable vintage or antique item be "repurposed." It already has a purpose, and a good one.

But not every old thing belongs behind glass (I'm still out and about). And once we've made sure that we have protected examples, out of circulation and preserved for posterity, must we continue to hoard?

What do you think, readers? Should I keep my antique items "in a box, with tissue paper," or should I wear and use and enjoy them?


Liza Dolensky

I totally agree with your arguments and loved to hear them. I enjoy wearing the vintage clothing I buy, but I do feel guilty if I spill or tear something but that is almost equal the guilt of waste I feel hiding things in my closet. As you say it is just run of the mill clothing, the museums have us covered. Take it out and wear it!

Liza Dolensky

Oh, I completely agree! Museums have done a fine job at preserving the beauties for our future generations to learn from and hopefully develop an appreciation themselves.

Wear what you find…show it and let people see a bit of history on the other side of glass….or boxes with tissue.

Liza Dolensky

What a strange exchange with an Etsy seller! It would have been so easy for you to simply lie to her and buy it anyway, but I’m glad you tried to correct her odd line of thinking – while we’re told that suggestions for uses are a great way to open up the customer’s imagination, having actual REQUIREMENTS for its use is so silly!! You’re a salesperson; if you don’t feel comfortable allowing the buyer to use their purchase as they see fit, then you really shouldn’t be selling! I hope you found a better seller with a nice chemise for your outfit :)

However, if I may disagree as respectfully as possible (and please feel free to ignore this, as it’s hardly relevant to the actual chemise matter at hand!), a thought on animal shelters – they have very good reasons for refusing to adopt out cats that are intended to be indoor/outdoor. That said, they often have “barn cats” (semi-feral or previously-outdoor-only) cats available for those interested in an outdoor kitty! I can’t speak for kill-shelters, but non-kill ones work very hard to find the right ‘forever’ home for their indoor cats, even if it means keeping them longer than anyone involved would like. While your reasoning is completely understandable, and can seem unfair from the adoption side, they truly do have the best interest of the animals in mind when they make those rules!

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