Deliberately Concealed Garments

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Session with Textile Conservation and Museum Studies postgraduates

W1620 Meaning and Matter of Cultural Material, week 3 ‘Object biographies. Lecture by Dinah Eastop

26 October 2001


This session was intended to elicit responses to some open questions about what the respondents would do if they found or were presented with a garment or other object that had been found in the walls or fabric of a building. The scenario was that they were restoring or decorating a house and found a concealed garment similar to the one being use as the focus of the session:-

What would you do if you found something like this in the roof/wall/foundation of your house?
Where would you go to find out more about what you have found? Museum? Internet? University? Other organisation?
If you were to use the internet to find out more information, what search terms would you use?

Students were shown an example of a concealed garment recently brought to the TCC (in 1999) - an 18th c. stomacher and waistcoat and some related fragments. Charlotte Dew briefly introduced the project and then asked for responses to the questions above. Many students came up to the front of the seminar room to view the objects and discuss what they were. After they had time to mull over their thoughts we briefly asked for their suggestions.

Initial responses to questions

1. Small, unrecognisable fragments may be discarded or left. Larger pieces may be kept e.g. in a cupboard. It would also depend on the context of the find. If the object seemed to have been placed there purposefully it should be put back because it belongs there. Questions would be asked about why it was put there.

2. There was a general consensus that a museum would be a first port of call to find out more. Others cited libraries as a resource, especially to find books about the history of costume. Historical societies were also mentioned.

For search terms that may be used in an internet search, the following suggestions were made:-

Website of House Detectives TV programme or similar (Meet the Ancestors, Time Team)
Building superstition
Search material type e.g. canvas, linen
Local tradition
Is it worth looking?
Historic dress/costume

Digest of responses from questionnaires

As well as oral feedback we requested participants to fill in a questionnaire that covered the same three questions. We received 21 completed questionnaires.

What would you do if you found something like this in the roof/wall/foundation of your house?


Depends on where it was found, i.e. was it in a storage container purposefully buried?

Would probably throw paper scraps or small pieces away - not think it was worth saving

Clothes/larger/complete items would be kept if recognisably ‘old’ or of historic interest

Put it back

Not do anything

Keep it and store carefully - acid free tissue and in a box

Examine it, open out and look at it in detail

Questions asked

What is it?

Why is it there?

Should it be removed or would it be unlucky? Perhaps it is meant to guard the house?

How does it fit into history of house?

What are the object’s needs - conservation?

Ask relatives or previous owners of the house if they know anything.

What were earlier uses of house?

Why there? Accident, or historical perspective?

Who wore it?

What were the people like?


Find out more/research it

Get other people’s opinion; can a local expert from a museum or specialist organisation identify it or any other interested party?

Make decision to investigate further if of historic interest; can I be bothered?

Research through books to identify object.

Attempt to date object by relating to the construction of the house.

Show to people as ‘talking point’.

Work with objects as a conservator.

If a museum was not interested, keep it in plastic bag in house.

Where would you go to find out more about what you have found? Museum? Internet? University? Other organisation?

The numbers by each suggestion indicate the number of times a particular source was mentioned (many respondents cited more than one source).


Museum/local museum 18 iiiii iiiii iiiii iii
Internet 8 iiiii iii
Library 5 iiiii
Local history group/society 3 iii
Historian/expert (university) 3 iii
Expert (local/general) 2 ii
Costume historian/expert
V & A [Victoria and Albert Museum]
Personal contact
Books on fashion and costume

Additional comments

Use internet for background rather than specific information.

Don’t think general public would know you could approach a museum.

Would have to be ‘IT friendly’ to use the Web.

Internet can take too long, approaching museum is more direct route to find out more.

If you were to use the internet to find out more information, what search terms would you use?

Terms mentioned more than once have been highlighted.

Textile related terms

Cloth - Clothing - Costume - Costume, houses - dress, hidden - embroidery, ancient - Hidden textiles - Historic costume - Historic dress - Historical textiles - Material type e.g. canvas, linen - Textiles - Tunic, Doublet i.e. type of garment

Folklore related terms

Building superstitions - Construction traditions - Folklore - Local tradition - Protective objects - Ritual - Superstition - Traditions

Building related terms

Architecture - Attic finds - Construction methods - Hidden in the wall - Restoration

Other terms

Archaeology - BBC website - Buried treasure - Heirlooms - Hidden - Hidden treasures - Local history - Museum websites - Preserving materials


The responses elicited from this short feedback session have demonstrated how differently people conceive of the idea of deliberately concealed garments. The term 'deliberately concealed garments' itself can be viewed as the technical term for this type of object but the variety of ways people may describe them should not be underestimated. This is especially important when the details of the DCG project website are submitted to search engines and publicised. However this will not be the only 'outlet' for the website. We must remember that the terminology used in the content of the site will also dictate how people relate to the subject.

It should also be noted that the group seemed to grasp immediately the idea that these objects were placed in the fabric of buildings for a special reason. Thus making the connection between 'deliberately' and 'superstition/folklore'.

That museums were cited as being one of the first ports of call if an object was found, highlights the importance of raising awareness of these objects and their associated significance within the museum community. Increasing the Project’s profile through the website and other methods of communication (mailshots, email lists, word of mouth) will help keep the museum/heritage/archaeology/academic communities up to date with developments in the field. In turn these people will be better equipped to deal with enquiries concerning DCGs and to incorporate them as evidence in research. As a consequence of broad awareness, we are more likely to have finds reported to us for scrutiny and documentation.

It is also interesting to note that the idea of the historic significance of these items was also emphasised. However, it must be remembered that we were interacting with a group that has a particular awareness of, and interest in objects of historic significance.

Further suggestions

It would be useful to do a similar session with contractors and builders and heritage sector people.

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