The Costume Museum in São Brás is part of a movement of social museums growing in popularity across Europe. Yes, there are traditional displays that you would expect to see, but it is also a meeting point, bringing arts and people together

Costume Museum: The very words conjure up images of theatre, film and flamboyance, but here in São Brás, at the Museu do Traje, it is more about a style typical of a particular country or historical period. It’s a vibrant and lively space, filled with stories and spectacle. A must visit, without question.

As the name suggests, the collection and preservation of costumes form a major part of the work of the museum, with a combination of permanent and temporary displays open to the public. The most recent temporary exhibition was centred around the 50-year celebrations of the revolution of 1974, showcasing costumes, household items and art typical of the period. Given the size of the museum, it is impossible for them to display all the costumes at one time, and this temporary exhibition allows the museum to rotate and display more to the public.

“The style is basically European, copied from European fashions of the time,” explains Director Emanuel Sancho. “The idea is what the costume represents, and people liked to show them off. The choice of garment and accessories displayed your wealth with a Sunday stroll providing the opportunity to reassert your position within the local community. What you wore mattered and was a symbol of status.” 

A permanent exhibition is dedicated to costumes of the 1930s when the building fulfilled its role as a bank within the community. There are two things that strike you about them: the incredible quality of the gowns, and the exquisite level of detail. Each would have been made by hand, with every bead and sequin sewn on individually. The condition of the costumes themselves, given their age, is testament to the work carried out by the museum.

There is also an exhibition showcasing the years from 1900 to 1930, an important period for São Brás, when the cork industry was booming, and it was a time of wealth and prosperity within the area. The building in which the museum is located is a symbol of that wealth.

Built in 1882, it belonged to the family of Miguel Dias de Andrade, described as a man of humble origins, who capitalised on the immense wealth that came into São Brás from the cork industry. But sadly, over the decades, both the house and the cork industry entered into decline. 

How, then, did a home that had deteriorated to such a point that it had been ear-marked for demolition become a museum dedicated to the history of costumes across the Algarve?

In 1986, Lucilia Dias Sancho, the granddaughter of the original owner, died and wanted her home to be used to serve the progress
of the Algarve.

Separately from the house, the costume collection was in its infancy. “During the 1980s, one of the Catholic priests who came to São Brás was really interested in textiles and costumes. He initiated the concept of a local museum, not specifically a costume museum, but with a specialist focus on textiles and costumes,” Emanuel explained. “When the house was donated to the to the charity Santa Casa da Misericórdia in 1986, the decision was taken to use it as a permanent location for the museum. 

“This has not been a quick process and the museum has undertaken slow and extensive restorations,” Emanuel continues. “In the 1990s, the municipality understood that we were serious about developing the museum and we started to attract money from the European government. Slowly, over the years, we have been able to restore the building and maintain the costumes.”

The most recent piece of restoration work is the decorative friezes in the room that operated as the bank manager’s office during the 1920s. Thought to have been painted by a local artist between 1922 and 1935, the paintings are currently being carefully restored to their original detail and richness, which, it is felt, will take a further two to three years to complete. It is known that the designs were painted by a local artist, but believed that they were copied from a European palace.

Part of the local picture

People across the Algarve have donated items of clothing that they found in their homes. Vânia Mendonça, Cultural Manager, says: “Remarkably, people are still finding historical pieces and donating them to the museum. The result is an extensive collection of costumes that is now one of the largest in Portugal. 

“It’s amazing that the costumes that have been in someone’s attic for many, many years have been discovered. Unfortunately, however, we never really get working costumes; people continue to use them and often families don’t think we would want them, whereas the elegant dresses of the upper classes would only have been worn a handful of times.”

Each donation undergoes rigid testing before being placed in a carefully controlled storage area, which is occasionally opened to the public. “It’s a long process,” explains Vania. “We have to check the condition of the item, check for infestations, prepare it and photograph it. The worst thing that could happen is for an infestation to enter the vast storage area, but once stored the costumes will remain undamaged into the future.”

Growing the story

Research is conducted using books in the museum’s extensive library, and also through photographs. Every Thursday, for 20 years now, people meet and bring along family photos showing the history of São Brás in terms of events, places, people and the all-important costumes. “The idea is that if hundreds of families do the same thing we have a history of the whole community,” says Vania. 

To date, 700 families have donated their photographs and personal letters. It was this process that enabled the museum to validate the history of a piece of exquisitely embroidered but damaged fabric. A photograph of a local bride revealed that the piece of fabric the museum held was the train of a wedding dress. Both the train and the picture of the bride wearing it on her wedding day are on display.

But a costume is not just a dress or a jacket. Accessories are needed to complete the look, and again, vast numbers have been donated – hats, gloves, ties, and even a straw belt typical of the type worn by agricultural workers in the Algarve. Also, beauty items, including lipsticks, perfumes and even blushers have been donated to the museum. Together they help to present a picture of what life was like in São Brás in days gone by. And every piece is diligently researched and recorded, so when an exhibition is created it provides a true reflection of how that costume would have been worn.

Emanuel Sancho is determined that the museum isn’t simply a place where old things rest, but that life is ever-present, through the gardens, the galleries and the continuation of art and costume. “We like to mix modern details alongside antiques,” he explains, and evidence of this is provided by the presence of Palmas Douradas, the atelier of Maria João Gomes, who hand weaves Algarvian palm leaves using old traditional techniques, but fashioning them into contemporary designs. Maria’s studio and shop at the Museum are open to visitors and shoppers; her hats are instantly recognisable, worn and seen at prestigious events, such as the Ascot races.

So much happening

The Costume Museum is a living breathing place filled with vibrant life. Volunteers form the backbone of the museum from managing the reception, to organising photographs and maintaining the beautiful and extensive gardens, which have also undergone recent restoration.

Emanuel explains: “It’s not just a museum, it’s a community space and all spaces are multifunctional. An art gallery that doubles up as a yoga studio. An auditorium displaying the work of the photography club. A concert venue. A garden providing a quiet, reflective place to sit. And a space for open air jazz evenings or restorative tai chi classes. There are film shows, lectures, fairs and festivals, courses of every description, and permanent exhibitions of farming and agricultural equipment, and cork. 

The Costume Museum is constantly evolving, and besides maintaining its position as an authority on costumes in Portugal, it provides a cultural centre for São Brás, a reflection of all that the town is, has been and aspires to be

Words: Steff Toft

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