Sunday, 8 March 2020

Hidden Stories from a Costume Collection

Getting up close to some Victorian costume

Well, I wasn't in any danger of not hearing about this. It was co-organised by Professor Deborah Wynne, who is responsible for the annual Textile Stories study days at the University of Chester. Deborah was also my dissertation supervisor, and she let me know about this event as soon as the details were confirmed. At the same time Meroe, a friend from my Ya Raqs days whose work is based at the museum, also contacted me to say, "Don't miss this, you'll love it"! She was right.

A popular event

The day began with Deborah interviewing Ruth Caswell about her remarkable, textile-filled life. Ruth sold her first clothing designs to a local department store while she was still at technical college in Leeds. She chose not to pursue this line however, and instead trained as a theatrical costumier, becoming costume supervisor (at 22) for the company which would eventually become the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

Ruth (left) and Deborah

In the early 1970s she and her husband moved to London. At this point she returned to making clothing, which she sold on a stall in Kensington High Street - at least until her 'Bird' dress featured in Vogue's 1971 Fashion Photograph of the Year.

'Bird' dress, photographed by Norman Parkinson

Ruth explained that the structure and volume of the dress did not 'just happen', but came from the frilled cotton culottes worn underneath it - an example of both the importance of underpinnings in costume and her strong practical training. She moved into bridal wear when it became apparent that women were buying her clothes to use as wedding dresses, and later began making clothing for the museum sector. This led to work in both film and TV: she was a textile advisor on the BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice; and made some of the costumes for the film Elizabeth. She now runs workshops with young people, introducing them to the possibilities of making a career in the creative arts.

A selection of Ruth's work through her career

After a delicious lunch, we moved onto the second part of the day, an 'unboxing' with a difference. Wrexham Museum owns a collection of Victorian costumes which was donated some years ago, but does not have the resources to display them. The hope is that by making the public aware of the existence of the Corbishley Collection, they might be able to change this. Two boxes had been brought out of the museum's stores, and we were able to see their contents in detail.

First out was this fan-front dress.

Lifting the dress out

It was a relatively plain design, but made from a lovely yellow and blue shot cotton. We were able to look at the construction details from the inside, such as these amazing cartridge pleats.

So. Much. Fabric.

The interior of the bodice showed where the fan pleating had been stitched down - and also the later addition of press studs!

Another interior shot

Once we had all had a chance to examine it, the dress was put on a mannequin.

Smoothing the dress in place

The dress had clearly been widened at some point. There was an obvious strip of fabric added at the back, the cartridge pleats had been let out, and the beautiful piping around the bodice lost.

Back view showing the added strip

Close-up of the loosened pleats and missing piping

Although plain, the dress was clearly of good quality. Ruth surmised that it was the type of garment which could have belonged to a governess. The addition of a lace collar and a red ribbon created a look very similar to this image of Charlotte Brontë.

A style fit for a governess, or author

The second dress was the one which had featured in the publicity materials, and was already on a mannequin.

Striped silk dress

This one had amazing sleeve details.

Scalloped, piped and buttoned sleeves

Like the first dress, it had been altered, albeit with rather less skill.

Clumsy pleating at the back

The state of this dress however was nothing compared to the indignities heaped on the next one to emerge from its box.

The bodice, on its bed of tissue

The silk was faded in places and shattering, presumably in part due to the aniline dye used. However the saddest discovery was that this wasn't a separate skirt and bodice; it was a dress which someone had at some point cut in half!

The skirt, complete with raw edge

Back view - this must have been a beautiful dress once

The final dress to emerge from storage was also in two pieces, this time intentionally. It was in remarkable condition, as if it had never been worn.

The bodice

Again, we were able to examine the interior in detail.

Flat-lining, boning, and a waist stay

The bones were laid over the seams, and sewn in place at the ends. The flat-lining was done in two different materials; fancy at the front and plain at the back. I wonder if this was deliberate, or just using whatever fabric was to hand?

Showing the different linings.

There was also a name printed on the waist stay, which showed that the dress came from Chester.

Madame Hamley, Eastgate Row, Chester

While the bodice was almost perfect (apart from badly sewn-on buttons), the skirt showed some signs of having been either altered or very awkwardly mended at some point.

Obvious stitching on the skirt

But this didn't detract from the overall look.

A very elegant back view

The dress from the front

In line with the 'hidden stories' theme, seeing the dress like this rather than fully done up on the mannequin allowed for one final detail to emerge. The button side of the bodice had been cut into, and the edges overcast with tiny stitches, to allow it to lie flat when done up.

Showing the cut, three buttons up

All in all it was a fascinating day, and I really hope that Wrexham Museum are able to show more of the collection to the public in the future. You can read Deborah's account of the event here.

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