An introduction to working with costume collections

On a bleak January Monday Vicki, Sue and Harriet, well wrapped up against the cold, ventured down to Blaise Castle House Museum in Bristol to learn about working with costume collections. Blaise Castle, a folly dating from the eighteenth century, could just be made out above the line of bare winter trees but we resisted the temptation to go and explore as our day was based in nearby Blaise Castle House,also dating from the eighteenth century but now home to Bristol’s Social History Museum.

Our classroom, known as the Picture Room, boasted original red flock wallpaper and a collection of gilt-framed landscape paintings. This is normally the venue for civil weddings but as we arrived it was set out with businesslike tables and chairs and a tempting assortment of period costume from the handling collection.

The course was led by Helen McConnell Simpson, Collections Officer for Public History at Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives. We began with a whistle-stop tour of women’s fashion from the 1700s pretty much up to the present day, starting with the very basics – corsets, used in the 19th century and up as far as the 1960s. Don’t be fooled by all those costume dramas featuring harassed maids trying to tightly lace corsets – the lacing was for sizing, hooks and eyes down the front were used for day to day dressing. When we buy our clothes today we are at the mercy of standardised sizes, but back then you defined your shape with the corset and your clothes were made to fit that silhouette.

Wedding dress with accentuated waist and optional long or short sleeved top

Wedding dress with accentuated waist and optional long or short sleeved top

Superficially capricious changes in fashion styles were often dictated by historical events, national mood, or new discoveries in producing and embellishing fabric and are important for dating costume. Knowing what you are looking for is a great help if, as is the case at Snowshill, you are faced with hundreds of old photographs and very little background information. If a costume detail can give a clue to a date then every little hint helps.

We discovered that in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, there was a taste for classical lines, a high waist and light fabrics such as muslin. However, from the 1820s to 1880s  the waist was emphasised and full skirts were supported by up to 14 pounds in weight of undergarments. The introduction of the lightweight crinoline in the late 1850’s must have been a great liberation.

A classical high-waisted dress

A classical high-waisted dress

The first synthetic dye, a bright purple colour, was invented in 1856, so the trend moved away from prints(which had been widely available since roller printing was invented in the late 1700’s) to plain colours.

Brightly patterned dress

Brightly patterned dress

 

The invention of the sewing machine led to the addition of details such as frills.

A bright blue dress with button details

A bright blue dress with button details

The 1860s into the 1880s saw the growth, quite literally, of the bustle which gradually dominated the rear of the dress. In the latter half of the century evening wear gained a lot of additional detail but day wear reflected masculine tailoring, which became more prominent in the 1890s, There was now a definite concept of a skirt and blouse, known as a costume, but garments would still have tapes inside to help keep the two parts together. Unlike today, revealing your midriff was not seen as a virtue. Hair was big and hats huge and precarious.

Elaborate fringe detail

Elaborate fringe detail

From the late 1890s to 1910 the curvaceous shape was popular along with clothes in white and pastel shades. An interesting fashion sub-culture around this time was Rational dress. Worn by affluent, artistic, bohemian types, it borrowed from Medieval styles, was loose and flowing and espoused the values of William Morris.

With the outbreak of the First World War, women wore trousers and loose tunics for factory work and suits for office work. After the war, people wanted to celebrate youth and life. In the 1920s clothes became very daring – sleeveless styles left arms bare, hems rose above the knee, movement was accentuated by beading and the new artificial silk, Rayon. Hollywood glamour was a big influence in the 1930s. The shape was slim with a longer bias cut.

The Second World War and the introduction of rationing saw a need for practical and long-lasting clothes, hence the introduction of the Utility scheme, identified by the CC41 mark. However hat material was not rationed so there was a trend for exotic turban styles. With the end of rationing in the 1950s full skirts and petticoats were popular. The first styles for teenagers were introduced, which took off in the 1960s when young people dictated fashion. Monochrome colours and alternative fabrics such as PVC made an appearance.

1970s fashion was influenced by non-western cultures, kaftans and paisley prints. Interestingly, with the current trend for vintage clothing, examples of 1970s fashion are hard to come by and don’t seem to have been as widely preserved. Beware putting out a general appeal though. Apparently one museum asked for examples of vintage underwear, only to discover that the the general public was only too happy to offload bags of saggy greying pants.

After a colourful interlude in the 1980s when  we were into power dressing and T-shirts with slogans, such as Wham’s “Choose Life!”, the 1990s toned it all down with a preference for comfort dressing and light denim.

To wake us up after this studious section  we had a chance to apply our new-found dating knowledge to the handling collection, which we did quite successfully, although some of the garments had been used by amateur theatre companies and had some distinctly modern alterations.

After lunch there were more practical exercises, starting with an introduction to packing costume. Helen demonstrated by deftly packing a voluminous skirt into quite a small box made of acid free card. Apparently a non acid-free box can be used as long as it is lined with acid-free tissue, which is good to know when our resources are stretched. She also showed us how carefully placed rolls of acid free in the folds of the garment are essential to prevent damage. After we had diligently practised our roll-making and packing techniques we moved on to labelling. Inventory numbers are written onto cotton tape using an archival ink pen. The tape is then carefully sewn to the garment. In order for us to practise this Helen produced some of the tiniest needles I have ever seen and I had to admit the optician had been quite right to point out that I needed glasses for close-up work.

Harriet expertly packs a skirt into a box

Harriet expertly packs a skirt into a box

At the end of the day our we were rewarded with a tour of the costume stores. Museum stores are often the best part of going on a course and these didn’t disappoint. Up in the attics, plain fitted wardrobes contained dresses from the 18th to the 20th century which illustrated all the fashion features we had just studied, with the bonus of a rail of clothes for children, including a heart-melting green velvet page boy outfit.

Tiny page boy suit

Tiny page boy suit

If you are keen on social history I recommend a visit to Blaise. There is a good selection of costume on public display as well as weird and wonderful vintage domestic implements. The South West Federation courses are free and are a great source of  specialist instruction. We certainly returned confident and full of enthusiasm for our costume collection.

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3 thoughts on “An introduction to working with costume collections

  1. I’ve loved reading your blog over recent months and delving back into old posts. I’m starting a seasonal role at Snowshill in March and it has provided a great insight into the house, collections and the work that you do – I’m looking forward to being part of it all!
    My background is in period costume and antique textiles, so I’d be very happy to help decipher any early photos etc, if I can.

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