Sunday, 17 November 2019

More costume goodness at the Walker Art Gallery

An English lady's wardrobe is not the only costume exhibition currently on display at the Walker. The Design Gallery on the ground floor often has a small costume display, and at present it is showing Dressed to Impress: Fashion in the 18th Century.

Part of the display

The 13 costumes on display belonged to 'the middling sort', those who were neither poor nor extremely wealthy. Because they are all displayed in glass cases, reflections were a problem when trying to take photographs. The men's dark suits proved particularly tricky, but I was able to photograph some of the waistcoats

Silk satin waistcoat, 1760-80

The displays are arranged so that it is possible to see the backs of most garments.

Back view of the waistcoat

One of the display cases . . .

. . . and the other

Among the menswear on display is this early example of 'shapewear'. For those men who lacked the requisite shapely calf, help was at hand in the form of padded stockings. These were worn with a pair of ordinary silk stockings over the top, and are displayed here with the left stocking inside out to show the wool padding.

Silk stockings with wool padding, 1775-1800

My interest however was in the women's wear. This dress, seen in the centre of the second display case, is made from a stunning silk brocade woven with flowers in the centre of plain silk medallions, with textured fabric around them. The maker clearly wasn't sure what to do with the pleated trim around the waist when it reached the back pleats, so it rather peters out.

Open gown and matching petticoat, 1760-65

Side view

The odd trim finish at the back

This costume spans a number of decades. The brocade dates from 1736-38, the gown was made around 1770-80, and the quilted petticoat 1750-80.

Keeping fabric for decades is clearly not a new thing!

Piecing at the top of the skirt

This gown had been altered in the nineteenth century for fancy dress wear.

Silk brocade sack-back gown and petticoat, 1765-70

Side views

Fortunately, the trim remains unaltered.

Sleeve detail

Sleeve and bodice

The family that originally owned this dress believed that it had been a wedding dress, but it may just have been a 'best' dress.

Silk satin damask open gown, 1750-70

I had great fun playing 'spot the piecing' around the exhibition. Some examples required close inspection, but some made it easy. I don't know enough about eighteenth century dress to know whether this join was just careful use of fabric, or remodelling when pointed bodice fronts became fashionable - all suggestions gratefully received.

Using just the spotted part of the fabric makes the join less obvious

I loved the jaunty quilting design on the petticoat.

Silk and wool quilted petticoat, 1750-1800

Another example of an open gown with a quilted petticoat had the skirt arranged in a polonaise. The green silk brocade was my favourite fabric in the exhibition, but the costume was nigh-on impossible to photograph without reflections.

Silk brocade open gown 1770-80

Another exuberant silk and wool quilted petticoat, 1750-1800

Annoying reflection on the polonaise

The best view was from the back, framed by two other gowns

Dressed to Impress runs until spring 2020, and is free to visit. Alternatively, all the costumes are featured in this book about National Museums Liverpool's eighteenth century costume collection.


  1. They're beautiful! I've seen pictures of some of these online, but how amazing it must have been to see them in person!
    I love spotting piecing in photos of garments too.
    It's a shame the shirts with those waistcoats are so badly done, but the waistcoats themselves are lovely.

    1. Yes, some of the skirts could have used more petticoats as well. Liverpool Museums do manage to put on some good displays with limited funding though, and I love how whenever possible they arrange things so that you can get an all-round view.