The Project

Silver Vinaigrette, silver with ivory carving, 1800 – 1825, Leeds Museum and Galleries

Digital Museum of Dress Accessories: Large Ideas in Very Small Things

What’s a dress accessory? Is it the safety pin that holds your jeans? The sunglasses that stop the glare? Or maybe you have a fancy phone case?

These add-ons to an outfit make for a huge category, and work with the entire body from top to toe. Some, like buckles, have been with us unchanged for at least two thousand years – just ask a Roman. But others, like our face masks, appeared yesterday.

The DMDA rethinks the category of ‘dress accessory’ and brings it centre stage. Using museum objects from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century that are rarely exhibited, researched, photographed, or even fully catalogued, the DMDA invites us to consider the big stories that these small things reveal.

There will be sixteen galleries in the museum, one for each object group. With text, pictures, videos and original sources, each immerses the viewer in the world of the accessory. Open the door to: patches and patch boxes, chatelaines, walking sticks/canes, skirt-lifters, shoe and dress buckles, parasols and umbrellas, nutmeg graters, dress shields, vesta cases, cigarette cases, watch chains, flea furs and flea catchers, compacts, portable scent containers, button hooks, and hatpins and hatpin holders.

Walking through the galleries and their rooms, we find that these little objects introduce large ideas. They tell us about health and the human body; about old crafts and new technologies; about empire and the abolition movement; about travel and tourism; and about the changing ways that gender was realised. And they engaged their wearers in a whole sensory experience, from perfume and odour, to the sound and weighty pull of hefty metal chains.

Accessories are the Cinderella of dress history and the museum world, too often forgotten while their fancier sisters go to the ball. But in their own time they did influential things. Some were elite must-haves of high fashion, but many were carried, manipulated, admired, and enjoyed by the masses.

As a free, digital site, the Museum can be visited by anyone at any time. It is a portal to a lost realm of accessories; the way in to large ideas in very small things.

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