Last time I wrote about starting research for the replica making process for our 18th century wedding ensemble. For this instalment I wanted to talk about the experience of going to see where all the magic happens – the studios of Past Pleasures.
I have known Louise from Past Pleasures for many years. She used to volunteer here at Chertsey Museum and was then commissioned to make a number of items for us, including a replica of our Tudor nightcap and a Tudor ensemble for our Education department. Despite this, I had never had the opportunity to see where the work to make the replicas takes place. I managed to wangle an invitation during one of our meetings and I jumped at the chance to see the workshop and some of the treasures that I knew must be there.
Past Pleasures is based in Witley in Surrey, so not too far away. My sat nav took me down through winding country lanes in this leafy and quiet part of Surrey and eventually brought me to a small industrial estate. I rang on the doorbell and was given admittance into the studio and offices where I was introduced to everyone and offered a welcome cup of coffee. It felt like a lovely creative environment. Louise and Steph sat down with me and showed me swatches of fabric samples they had been gathering. This is one of the most tricky parts of the project. The beautiful papery silk of the originals, with its tiny raised spots and attractive coloured flower sprigs, is no longer available to us. They simply don’t make textiles of such fine and delicate quality any more.
The actual silk of the 1780s gown and petticoat was almost certainly woven in Spitalfields, East London. This was an important centre for silk weaving and much of the 18th century figured silk, or silk brocade, that we find in British collections today originated from there. Skilled weavers, many of them descended from protestant Huguenots exiled from France during the 17th century, worked in the area. They produced silk for the dressmaking and furnishing trades which had beautiful flowing or sprigged designs, often with complicated backgrounds and sometimes with silver or gold thread included. Spitalfields silk has its own characteristic style which, after seeing a lot of silk designs, becomes recognisable to the trained eye.
From the 16th to the 18th century silk would have been woven on a large draw loom, which was extremely complicated and time-consuming to set up. This type of loom had been used in the Middle East and Asia for many centuries before being adopted in Europe. It had two separate forms of harnesses incorporated into the same loom and took up a large amount of space; requiring a ‘draw boy’ to assist the weaver in the completion of the complex patterns. The results were narrow widths (ranging from 18 to 29 inches wide) of silk brocade with gorgeous naturalistic designs which followed the fashions for increasing simplicity in silk design as the 18th century progressed. Although we are committed to producing beautiful replicas, the re-creation of a draw loom was not going to be on the cards. Suitable equivalents of plain ivory silk taffeta without the spot design in the background were discussed, the plan being for Louise to print and paint the sprigged design instead of weaving it.
Next we discussed the undergarments for the ensemble, most specifically the stays. We consulted various text and pattern books such as Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 5, a recent and important publication by the School of Historical Dress. Steph from Past Pleasures also showed me a pair of original late 18th century stays from her own collection. They are fascinating, partly because they are in a state of some disrepair. Stays of this period are extremely rare and even those in poor condition are much sought after. As these were coming apart in some places, it was possible to investigate the interlinings and the whalebone inside – essential for the purposes of re-creating Jane Bailey’s pair. Unlike our own stays, these had soft leather edging under the arms, clearly designed to make the stays more comfortable at this key pressure point on the body. It was also possible to see that tiny hand-made metal or lead eyelets had been inserted into the lacing holes before being covered with stitching – something that I was not aware of in the construction of stays from this era. I could clearly see that Past Pleasures were undertaking painstaking research both with secondary and original source material, all of which would feed into the production Jane Bailey’s wedding gown.
It all starts with the original garments. In order to create an authentic replica of our 1780 wedding ensemble, it is necessary to go back to the clothes themselves and make some very detailed records of exactly what we are dealing with.
On a cloudy morning in February I welcomed Louise and Steph from Past Pleasures to the Museum for an appointment with the past. The beautiful and remarkably well preserved pieces were removed from storage and carefully placed on a table in our Research Room. The gown and petticoat are made from a papery ivory silk taffeta which has been brocaded or woven with little wreaths of flowers, flowing ribbons and sprigs on a background of tiny white spots. Though the garments are in good condition, they are so delicate and vulnerable to damage from handling. There would be no question of anyone taking the pieces out of the Museum for study, so Louise and Steph had to come here to do their analysis.
When I take dress items out of storage for mounting, display or research I sometimes have to stop myself from thinking too hard about them, a bit like not looking directly at the sun, otherwise my imagination would run riot and I’d never get any work done! All historic objects have that link to the past – the feeling that someone long dead has touched them and used them – but somehow the connection is magnified when it comes to clothes. Garments are such personal things. They often contain imprints of the individual who wore them; their sweat, their makeup, that accidental stain as some food or drink dropped onto them, even their perfume sometimes. These clothes walked with their wearers as they moved though their lives, picking up memories and experiences as they went. Now we can only speculate about those thoughts and feelings, but the basic experiences are roughly the same. We wear clothes on our bodies now and they wore them then – it helps us to make links in our mind’s eye; easier perhaps than understanding the meaning of historic objects that no longer play a part in our lives.
As part of the painstaking process of re-creation, every aspect of the dress and petticoat were photographed and measured. Sketches were made so that proper patterns of each panel piece could be drawn up. It is worth remembering that although this will look and feel like the original, it has to fit a modern body. This is perhaps the most tricky part – grading the patterns to fit someone else yet still holding on to the feel of the originals.
Louise and Steph would be back to do more work with our pieces, but this felt like an important milestone – the project was properly underway.
In my last post I mentioned the film we plan to make of Jane Bailey’s replica wedding ensemble. This week I was lucky enough to visit the location. We are due to make the film in September of this year, once all the garments have been completed, and it was necessary to go down to Wonston in Hampshire to have another look at the church where Jane Bailey and James Wickham married on the 9th November 1780.
I last visited Holy Trinity back in 2007 when I was researching a paper for the journal Costume (Evans, G.,‘Marriage à la Mode, An Eighteenth-Century Wedding Dress, Hat and Shoes Set from the Olive Matthews Collection, Chersey Museum’, Costume, vol.42, 2008). Having done lots of research on the garments and the families of Jane and James, I felt a strong sense of connection to them as I drove along leafy, quiet country lanes, parked my car and walked though the sunny churchyard into the church. After all, this was the place where a real person once wore our real garment. We know that the ensemble was actually worn here nearly 239 years ago. There is a sense of poignancy too as Jane and James are both buried in the family tomb in the churchyard.
Holy Trinity is not as it was in the 1780s. A fire in 1908 caused significant damage, and it has been extended since Jane’s time. She would have entered though the back of the church, not the side door as we do now. Despite this, we were still walking along the same ground and it feels right to be filming the replica being worn in this place. We won’t attempt to re-create the church as it was – we don’t have the budget for that - instead the film will be an echo of what went before.
The Churchwarden very kindly showed TJ (our film maker) and I around the church and we were able to discus the logistics of the filming and scout the spots we will use on the day. The aim is for our costumed re-enactor to tread in Jane’s footsteps, but only in a manner of speaking as the scene will be different. You could compare it to a ghost walking through a house that has altered since it was first occupied.
After our meeting I was kindly taken to more places that Jane would once have known. Her local parish church in Stoke Charity, just down the road from Wonston, is a real gem. John Betjeman waxed lyrical about it and it contains some early tombs, beautiful Norman archways and even a Saxon doorway. A sculpture of St Gregory from the late Medieval period that somehow survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation and Civil War is a rare thing to see. After our visit to Jane’s local church, we had a look at the exterior of what may well have been Jane’s childhood home – West Stoke Farm. This is something that I need to research further as it would be great to finally pin down a few more details about her life. The more information we can gather about her, the closer we get to her.
Welcome to the brand new Chertsey Museum fashion blog! I’m Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume, and I’ll be discussing some of the most interesting events and projects relating to the nationally significant Olive Matthews Collection of dress housed at Chertsey Museum. As some of you will already know, the Olive Matthews Collection consists of over 6,000 items, around 4,000 of which are articles of dress and accessories dating from c.1600 to the present day.
The project currently taking up much of my attention is our plan to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Olive Matthews Collection Trust. I will be blogging intermittently about this fascinating idea as and when something exciting happens, and you will have a chance to understand the progress of said project from its inception to its completion and beyond.
Back in the Autumn of 2018, the Trustees mentioned to me that they would like to mark this significant anniversary in the collection’s history with something memorable and useful. We came up with a variety of ideas, but eventually it was agreed that we should commission a replica of one of the most important groups of garments housed within the collection. It is a complete wedding ensemble; consisting of a gown, matching petticoat, hat and shoes which was worn by Jane Bailey on the occasion of her marriage to James Wickham on the 9th November 1780 (see photo). The group has survived in incredibly good condition considering that it is over 230 years old. This in itself is remarkable, but its rarity is enhanced by the fact that we know who wore the clothes, when they wore them and where – the marriage took place at Holy Trinity Church, Wonston, Hampshire. What better group could there be to work with from the collection than this one? The concept we had in mind was to use the replicas, along with the right undergarments, wig and accessories, to deliver interpretation sessions for audiences, both at the Museum and at outside venues. These would allow people to see the garments on a real body, understand the way that they were constructed, and worn and, crucially, what they felt like to wear. A living interpreter would also help people to see how someone moved in such clothes and even listen what the clothes might sound like as the wearer walked – all things that are not possible to understand from viewing an original garment on a mannequin inside a glass case. The replica ensemble will bring long-term benefits to the collection by complementing and enhancing our learning about the amazing original garments – an imaginative and useful way of marking a significant event in the collection’s history. Thoughts also turned to the concept of making a film of the replica being worn as the wearer walks down the aisle of Holy Trinity Church, Wonston – an idea which would really bring the garments to life in people’s imagination.
Having secured the support of the Trustees, I researched into the options for the creation of our replicas. It was eventually agreed that Past Pleasures, historical costumiers, would undertake the work. As well as creating replica garments, Past Pleasures also interpret; hiring skilled historical interpreters to wear their clothing and tell the stories of the people they represent. You may well have encountered them as you walk through some of our most important historical landmarks.
Since securing the help of Past Pleasures I have been involved in the in-depth research they have been undertaking in order to make and source the replicas. The first and perhaps most important step was to allow access to the original garments. These were minutely studied, measured and photographed. Patterns were taken so that they could be scaled up to the size of a modern body and the work began to find suitable fabrics and surviving examples of stays and other underpinnings to replicate in order to complete the look. Watch this space to find out about our quest to recreate these very special garments. We will publish a link to each new instalment of the blog as it happens. Come and join us on this fascinating journey!