Visitors to the Charleston Museum will get a taste of Civil War history by visiting the newest exhibit, "Threads of War," which displays Confederate uniforms and clothing worn by locals during what locals called the late unpleasantness.

But behind a locked door, in tall cabinets and huge sliding drawers, are more than 8,000 pieces of historic clothing seldom seen by the public. This is Jan Hiester's world, where everyday things from the past are treated with the same respect as dinosaur bones and fragile fossils.

As registrar and curator of textiles, Hiester has collected and cataloged shoes and petticoats and ornate dresses from Charleston's rich past since she began working here in 1978.

"Actually, only a very small portion is on display at any given time," she said. "Partly because of space. But also because exhibition is pretty damaging to historic textiles."

Therefore, she explained on a recent behind-the-scenes tour, it's important to "rest the textiles" from time to time.

Smoking jackets

So here in this temperature- controlled space she carefully opens cabinets that hold men's embroidered coats and top hats, as well as women's lacy dresses dating back to the 18th century.

"We started collecting textiles in 1917," Hiester said. "Before that we were primarily a natural history museum."

Indeed, the nation's oldest museum, dating back to 1773, operated as a "Smithsonian of the South," Hiester explained, until 1984 when it narrowed its focus to the Lowcountry.

In Cabinet No. 30, for instance, is a collection of uniforms from the early days of The Citadel, the Charleston Light Dragoons, and other militia units.

In No. 29 there are smoking jackets from the 1930s. In No. 35 are ornate wedding gowns.

Hiester is especially proud of the museum's quilt collection, stacked high and carefully rolled. And she loves the shoes, some so tiny and delicate it's hard to believe real women wore them.

Quiet moments

"Textiles are especially challenging because so many things are bad for them," Hiester said. "Dust, dirt, mold and mildew along with the stress of hanging or storing. It's always a juggling act."

But with each door she opened or drawer she pulled, history raised its head to be seen and heard after resting so long in the darkness.

Despite rotations, some of these items have only been seen by Hiester, or the occasional researcher allowed entry into these quiet caverns.

"Just touching these things that were worn 200 years ago is very inspiring," she said. "I do grow close to them as I learn more about the people."

Which, of course, raises the question: In those quiet moments back here alone, is she ever tempted to try on a dress, a hat or a pair of gloves?

"Actually, I'm not much of a try-on person," she said with a smile. "And they probably wouldn't fit me anyway."