Fashion Blog

Unbreakable Threads Part 9


'Goddess' cocktail gown by Paul Poiret, c.1927. Image courtesy of Kerry Taylor Auctions

'Goddess' cocktail gown by Paul Poiret, c.1927. Image courtesy of Kerry Taylor Auctions.

Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity

“Once during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water” – W.C. Fields

During my 7th ‘Unbreakable Threads’ blog post I discussed the importance of tea in my overall coping strategy for dealing with the lockdown. I would be dishonest if I didn’t also add the occasional alcoholic beverage to that regime. A gin and tonic or a glass of wine at the end of a long, strange and challenging week has helped on occasion. Once we have moved past this period of crisis the statistics will surely show that many households’ consumption of alcohol has increased in the past weeks. There was definitely a period during the lockdown, possibly around week 1 or 2, when the supermarket wine aisles were pretty bare. Clearly some people began to panic buy wine almost as enthusiastically as lavatory paper and tinned tomatoes. How much harder for some might this period have seemed if we had been banned from drinking?

During 2018 the Olive Matthews Collection purchased a stunning cocktail dress by Paul Poiret, which dates from around 1927. Its provenance links it to Chicago, Illinois, and when we acquired it, my thoughts quickly turned to the Prohibition era that it hailed from, and it is this fascinating period in American history that I want to explore here.

The prohibition I am referring to took place in the United States of America during the early 20th century. It consisted of a national, constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, and lasted from 1920 to 1933. Prohibition was the result of fervent campaigning by organisations, many of which were of the Pietistic Protestant persuasion, against the evils of alcohol on society. Women campaigners were also at the forefront of the fight. Temperance societies included the WCTU, or Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It was felt that alcohol fuelled domestic violence, led to a lack of productivity and caused ill health. The very successful Anti-Saloon League also argued that saloons, or bars, were a hotbed of political corruption. A groundswell of support for the movement gained momentum during the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and eventually resulted in the ratification of the 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1920 which enabled the Volstead Act to be passed. This Act allowed the enforcement of the federal legislation.

There were many differing views on this radical new legislation at the time. Some felt that the health of the nation did indeed improve as a result of it. Many people are said to have adhered to the rules, whether in agreement with them or not. There have been claims that there was a reduction in rates of liver cirrhosis, alcoholic psychosis and infant mortality. However, there were criticisms, on many different grounds, and these voices became louder during as the 1920s progressed. Winston Churchill, who famously drank champagne daily, stated that Prohibition was “an affront to the whole history of mankind”, and there were certainly assertions that Prohibition represented the loss of liberty and freedom of choice. Others drew attention to evidence of growing criminal activity stimulated by the legislation. Weaknesses at the U.S. borders meant Prohibition was difficult to police. Some other countries were happy to profit from increased alcohol-fuelled tourism and the illegal supply of alcohol. A continued public appetite for strong drink in some quarters drove manufacture, trafficking and supply underground and into the hands of organised crime, which was thought to have proliferated during this period. Chicago was famously the home of the ‘Chicago Outfit’ an organised crime syndicate led by notorious mobsters Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, and this organisation is said to have gained in power and wealth from, amongst other things, its control and distribution of alcohol during Prohibition. 

The legislation as it was applied in most U.S. states didn’t prevent people from drinking alcohol in private in their own homes. The wealthy managed to stock up on wine, beer and spirits during 1919, just before their purchase became illegal. This fuelled discontent amongst the poorer members of society who could not afford to do the same. Some people also found a way around the situation by fermenting their own wine from legal grape juice (informative labels bore instructions on what ‘not’ to do to achieve this). Prescribing alcohol for medical reasons was still permitted, and some unscrupulous physicians made money from doing so. Home-distilled spirits, known as ‘bathtub gin’ or ‘Moonshine’, often tasted better than home-brewed wine or beer, though it was illegal to sell it, and the equipment required to make it. In a sinister move, the U.S. government, attempting to curtail illegal drinking via alternative sources, even modified industrial alcohol to make it poisonous, resulting in many deaths.  

Another option was the ‘Speakeasy’, or illegal drinking club. Perhaps unsurprisingly these lucrative and illicit establishments popped up in towns and cities throughout the U.S. The origin of the name is said to have come from the ‘Speak Softly Shop’, which refers to a smuggler’s den. This had evolved into a ‘Speakeasy’ by the mid-19th century, and by the 1880s it was coined in America to describe unlicensed drinking venues; used and referred to in hushed tones. Hidden bars in basements and back rooms, or clubs masquerading as legal concerns sprang up during the Prohibition era. In addition to the many small, modest establishments, there were also higher profile places. The screen and stage actress Texas Guinan famously opened several Speakeasies, and places such as the ’300 Club’ in New York were so high profile that celebrities including Al Jolson and Edward, Prince of Wales were known to have visited. Another Speakeasy, the ’21 Club’, famously operated a system whereby doormen could alert the bar staff of an impending police raid, triggering the use of a mechanism to transform the bar and quickly hide illegal activity. Set loose from the strictures of mainstream society, Speakeasy culture was more free-thinking than that of the old pre-Prohibition saloon bars. The Prohibition era coincided with the radical social and cultural upheavals of the 1920s. Women frequented Speakeasies without judgement from fellow drinkers and black people mixed freely with whites, often to the vibrant beats of the new Jazz music, which also gained popularity in a more liberated underworld.  

Dating as it does from around 1927, this beautiful couture cocktail gown was commissioned by American, Mrs Yolande Perkins, from Paul Poiret’s fashion house during the Prohibition era. She was the wife of the successful Chicago architect Francis Wainwright Perkins, who sadly died in 1928. From archive material held at the University of Illinois we know that Mrs Perkins was a loyal customer of Poiret’s. He, along with other forward-thinking designers, had played a vital role in altering the course of fashion during the pre-First World War period. His vibrant, exotic and innovative clothes captured the imaginations of a clientele keen to break away from the strict and staid principles of Edwardian dress. Despite having inspired post war fashions in many ways, Poiret was a vocal critic of the tubular styles that emerged during the 1920s, and this era saw his business fail in 1929. Many fashion writers have dismissed Poiret’s 1920s designs as lacking his pre-1914 touch, but this piece, and others I have seen, belie this. The gown is made from gold lamé and features a gathered skirt with an asymmetrical section to the rear. A separate draped panel extending across the back of the shoulders falls in a graceful line down front left-hand side of the gown; finishing in a large, beaded tassel. Stunning bead-embroidered flowers, scrolls and acanthus leaves in gold bugle beads, pearls and clear pastes have been applied to silk panels and set into the bodice. A paper label fixed to the back of the designer’s label bears the word ‘De’Esse’ or ‘Goddess’ – a highly appropriate name for a gown that bears many of the hallmarks of Classically inspired dress in its draped style. Here too Poiret is ahead of his time in pre-empting the Classical modes that were so popular during the 1930s. Sadly we don’t know when or where Yolande Perkins wore the ‘Goddess’ gown, or even whether it witnessed the consumption of a cocktail or two, but don’t let that stop you imagining this exceptional garment gracing glamorous 1920s parties in lofty Art Deco apartments.

Unbreakable Threads Part 8


Utility blouse of striped Rayon, c.1942 - 1945.

Utility blouse of striped Rayon, c.1942 - 1945. Photos by John Chase Photography.

Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity

“What women needed was a minimum wardrobe with maximum versatility” [1]

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that on Friday we celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day; the end of the Second World War in Europe, and the end for many of a period of great hardship, loss and adversity. With that in mind, it seemed only fitting that I should concentrate on Second World War fashions for this week’s Unbreakable Threads blog post.

Vivienne Westwood once asserted “I was born during the war and grew up in a time of rationing. We didn't have anything. It's influenced the way I look at the world”. Apart from giving us a little insight into the way this great designer’s mind works, this statement also acknowledges the fact that the privations of the Second World War profoundly affected the way that people felt, and still feel, about everyday items. Shortages, as well as the ongoing stress of living through violent conflict, meant that priorities changed during the War, but not necessarily in a straightforward or simple way.

It is often said that fashion stood still through the Second World War, but this is not strictly correct. It is true that high fashion, as dictated by the couture houses of Paris, took a back seat during the conflict, but the war nevertheless saw new fashion styles develop. These were born out of necessity, practicality and austerity, but in keeping with the wartime spirit that carried people through the conflict, they also showed evidence of innovation and imagination.

War profoundly altered the garment industry in Britain. Instead of making clothing for civilian consumption, the government needed to give priority to the production of uniforms for troops. The shortage of raw materials, combined with a reduced workforce, meant that new clothes for normal everyday wear were in short supply. In an attempt to encourage a more even distribution of the limited number of items available, clothes rationing was introduced on the 1st June 1941. It continued until 1949; 4 years after the war ended. Every man, woman and child was provided with 66 clothing coupons for the year (though this reduced later in the war). The number of coupons needed for each type of garment was allocated according to how much fabric and labour had gone into producing it, so a woman’s overcoat required 14 coupons, a skirt 7 and a dress 11. For a pair of women’s shoes 5 coupons were needed. It has been estimated that rationing reduced clothing consumption to about half the level it had been before the war.[2]

For those not familiar with the rationing system, I wanted to clear up some popular misconceptions; rationing did not mean that coupons replaced money when purchasing items. The requisite number of coupons had to be handed over when buying a rationed commodity, but it was also necessary to pay for it with currency in the normal way. Also, the system of rationing did not have the effect of reducing prices. Indeed, scarcity meant that the cost of clothing increased during wartime. Rationing was simply designed to limit the quantity of specific items an individual could buy during a given period, so that a limited supply of goods could be shared out more fairly and evenly amongst the population.

The word ‘quantity’ often goes hand in hand with ‘quality’, and the issue of quality in clothing quickly became a further concern alongside the need for fair distribution. The resulting solution: the Utility Scheme, was launched by the Board of Trade in the Autumn of 1941, but came into full effect in 1942. This system, which remained in place until 1952, sought to offer a trusted framework of controls over the quality of cloth used to produce garments and the maximum prices that could be charged for those items. Pieces that were part of the Utility Scheme could be easily recognized by a Utility Mark. The distinctive CC41 logo (Civilian Clothing 1941), designed by Reginald Shipp, was stamped on all Utility items. The scheme gave buyers confidence. It was a guarantee of good quality, value for money, and coupons.

Further controls associated with Utility clothing were introduced during 1942 and 1943. The Board of Trade brought in the ‘Making-up of Civilian Clothing (Restrictions) orders’ to bring about further savings of labour and materials in manufacturing. The orders, commonly called ‘austerity regulations’ were required for both Utility and non-Utility clothing. A whole raft of directives was imposed on the garment industry. The idea was to eliminate wasteful cutting, excessive stitching and superfluous decoration. To give some examples of just a few of these quite stringent requirements; dresses were to have no more than 2 pockets and five buttons. Skirts should feature only 2 inverted or box pleats or 4 knife pleats. Men’s suits could no longer include a waistcoat and had to be single rather than double breasted. Lapels could not exceed a certain width and trouser turn-ups were abolished along with pocket flaps. Elastic was in particularly short supply and women’s knickers were one of only a few garments for which its use was permitted…

In order to publicise these new measures, and to give them credibility both with the public and the fashion press, London’s top fashion designers were asked to produce a collection which followed these stringent requirements. The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, which included such names as Digby Morton, Hardy Amies and Victor Stiebel, duly did so. The result was a masterclass in elegance and simplicity. The collection won the approval of Vogue and led to the general adoption of more pared down lines and simple cutting. Essentially, the styles emphasised the shoulders, promoted a narrow waist and accentuated the hips. Devices such as slanting pockets and straight skirts with gentle movement created by pleating or slight flaring were used to great effect. Military uniform styles also influenced Utility fashions and features like patch pockets, belted jackets and high-cut necklines were all in evidence. Those who read my blog post on our 1815 Spencer and the influence of the Napoleonic Wars will know that the spread of military styles into mainstream fashion during times of conflict was nothing new. Amongst other things it boosted morale and promoted a sense of patriotism. These devices, plus the innovative use of material and resourceful approaches to decoration indicate how austerity, or even necessity, could indeed be the mother of invention.

The garment from the Olive Matthews Collection that I would like to focus on this time is a Utility blouse, once no doubt worn with a simple skirt suit. It dates to the early 1940s and includes many of the typically ‘Utility’ qualities that I have discussed above. The fabric is Rayon. Silk was banned from civilian clothing from 1941, so this modern plant-based fibre offered a credible alternative which had the shine, if not the feel and weight of silk itself. The colour and simple striped pattern are also important. The use of brightly coloured blouses with suits was a common device used to add a little lightness to an otherwise plain, austere outfit. As mentioned above, in addition to the high neck and narrow collar, the shoulder line is augmented. The shoulders are emphasised by adding a ‘puffed’ effect through gathers at the sleeve heads. The requisite 5 buttons fasten only the top two thirds of the blouse – the bottom section would have been tucked into the skirt, therefore rendering fastenings unnecessary. Perhaps the most obvious ‘Utility’ element of the blouse is the innovative use of the ‘self-fabric’ as a means of decoration. Extra graduated sections of the striped rayon are added to the front. They have been turned so that the stripes run horizontally, catching the eye and providing a thrifty decorative element, made from fabric that might otherwise have been wasted in the production process. The result is a typically 1940s blouse that features many of the positive qualities we associate with the Utility Scheme.

Far from homogenising fashion, Utility clothing brought substantial benefits. As well as giving consumers the confidence to feel that they were spending their money on practical and good quality items, the scheme fostered the imaginative use of scarce fabric. The resulting looks were both stylish and memorable; producing strong fashion statements that still resonate with the pluck and resilience of the Second World War Generation to this day. 


[1] Mendes, V. & de la Haye, A., Fashion Since 1900 (Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2010), p.104

[2] Ibid p.109

Unbreakable Threads Part 7


Silk chiffon tea gown, c.1895 - 1905.

Silk chiffon tea gown, c.1895 - 1905. Photo by John Chase Photography

Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity

“In our own drawing rooms when the tea-urn sings at five o’clock, we can don these garments of poetical beauty”. [1]

In a recent phone conversation with a friend in quarantine, we turned to the subject of tea. This simple hot drink had taken on a new level of importance in a home in lock-down. The seemingly innocuous process of making and drinking a cup of tea already had the power to bring comfort, camaraderie, an opportunity for conversation or simply a chance for a moment’s peace. In an unpredictable world, the familiar rituals associated with this simple infusion have become even more valuable. In short, we concluded that tea is part of our current coping strategy.

The British public came relatively late to tea. It is known to have become established as a drink in China during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), but it was not until members of the British East India Company started to bring it back during the 17th century that it was enjoyed here. Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, made it fashionable and with this royal seal of approval, wealthier British people began to enjoy tea drinking in earnest, both at home and in coffee houses. The eighteenth century saw a growing uptake, and soon fortunes were being made through growing and importing it. Seen as a luxury item, taxation on tea was punitive through much of the 18th century, making it expensive, and desirable. Unsurprisingly, there was a lively illegal trade. Without quality control through customs and excise, much of the smuggled tea was adulterated with all sorts of unwholesome things. Leaves of other kinds were used, as well as dried recycled tea, and the colour might be enhanced with such horrors as sheep’s dung or toxic copper carbonate. Finally, in 1784 the British government slashed taxation on tea to reasonable levels. The smuggling trade died off and tea was at last affordable; it became a staple that people could enjoy every day, whatever walk of life they hailed from.

By the 19th century, tea had become part of the British way of life, and though it was taken at other times of the day, the idea of a specific ‘tea-time’ between 4 and 5pm was established as a familiar activity. This served only to enhance the ritualistic aspect of tea drinking. The production of elaborate china tea services boomed and as mechanisation brought mass production, more and more people could afford them. Along with a smart tea service came an expectation of polite behaviour and perhaps a certain level of formality that has, along with tea drinking itself, become synonymous with Britishness.

The objects associated with the rituals of tea drinking were not limited to china cups and saucers, however. During the 19th and early 20th centuries clothing too had a role to play. The tea gown, a garment designed to be worn by wealthier women during the late afternoon, emerged as a specific named item of clothing during the 1870s and continued to be worn into the early 1920s by some. It was just one part of an exhausting round of up to six changes of clothing that took place, with the help of a lady’s maid, throughout the day. Alongside night attire, these included morning dress, walking dress, smarter clothing for formal luncheon and eveningwear. Constrictive corsetry was required in order to achieve the required fashionable silhouette of the era, but the tea gown alone was designed to be worn without stays. It gave women a chance to breathe and relax a little before the formality was ramped up once again for the evening. At first tea gowns were quite simple creations; more akin to dressing gowns, but they became increasingly elaborate during the 1880s. Initially the fashion was only deemed appropriate for married women. It was thought that the diaphanous nature of such garments might somehow adversely affect the reputation of the young, single woman. Although this changed as the fashion took hold, tea gowns still maintained a touch of allure. In her novel ‘The Career of Katherine Bush’, Elinor Glyn describes the character Lao Delemar as “lying upon her sofa in a ravishing saffron gauze tea gown smoking scented cigarettes”. [2] They had romantic connotations too. Some tea gowns, especially those from the Liberty of London department store, were loosely inspired by historical dress, adding an air of fantasy and make-believe.  

In order to understand a little of what women were generally expected to endure through much of the day in the name of fashion, I wanted to include the following excerpt. In ‘The Edwardians’ Vita Sackville West writes an account of one of the characters being laced into her stays by her maid:

Then her mother would rise, and, standing in her chemise, would allow the maid to fit the long stays of pink coutil, heavily boned, round her hips and slender figure, fastening the busk down the front, after many adjustments; then the suspenders would be clipped to the stockings; then the lacing would follow, beginning at the waist and travelling gradually up and down, until the necessary proportions had been achieved. The silk laces and their tags would fly out, underthe maid’s deft fingers, with the flick of a skilled worker mending a net.[3]

This solid and constricting foundation was necessary for women’s fashionable day and evening wear to fit correctly. Although wearing stays was not necessarily a problem for those who could tolerate it, the discomfort caused by the corsetry, that most women and girls over the age of 13 were expected to wear, should not be underestimated. In her memoir ‘Period Piece’ Gwen Raverat recalls what it felt like to wear her stays: “to me they were real instruments of torture; they prevented me from breathing, and dug deep holes in my softer parts on every side” [4]. The relief felt when such underpinnings were removed and a looser tea gown slipped on, must have been significant.

The tea gown I would like to focus on from the Olive Matthews Collection has been a firm favourite for a number of years. Though made in striking black with wide, imposing shoulders, the overall impression is one of softness. It dates from around the late 1890s to the early 1900s and is made from silk chiffon. The fabric falls in generous swathes from the neckline to the floor. Below the large puffs at shoulder level the chiffon fans out in pleated bell-shaped sleeves which are split from the elbow to give a draped, dramatic effect. A generous flounce of pleated chiffon has been added to the edge of a yoke of lace. This extends around the back of the dress and over the puffed sleeves before descending in ripples to the hem. A soft ruffle has also been added to the bottom of the skirt. It is interesting to note that beneath the softness of the chiffon an inner bodice of stiffer silk taffeta is to be found. This is boned with steels and though not as tight as a corset, would still have gripped and supported the torso. The reason for this is two-fold. For the gown to sit correctly on the body, a form of under-structure was considered necessary. Also, wearers themselves might have preferred a certain level of support, even in a tea gown. When used to feeling one’s body constantly held upright by steels or whalebone, the complete removal of such devices would have felt strange and unfamiliar; perhaps dangerously freeing.

It is alien in our modern, busy world, to conceive of a garment designed specifically for taking tea – how different these women’s lives must have been from our own. Yet the idea of relief and relaxation associated with the tea gown seems entirely in keeping with the concept of tea drinking. The formality is largely gone, and the tea gown may be a thing of the past, but the ideas and feelings associated with it remain. The oasis of peace and calm that can be found when we take a moment to sit down, relax, breathe and drink a cup of tea feels like a real lifeline in these uncertain times.  


Please do keep an eye on social media for announcements of more blog posts to come on the theme of Dressing through Adversity.


[1] Pritchard, Marian E., ‘The Cult of Chiffon’ (Dover Publications, New York, 2017), p.23

[2] Glyn, Elinor, ‘The Career of Catherine Bush’, (Read Books Ltd., Worcestershire, 2013), p.122

[3] Sackville West, Vita, ‘The Edwardians’, (The Hogarth Press, London, 1970,), pp.39-40

[4] Raverat, Gwen, ‘Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood’ (Faber and Faber, London, 1952), p.259

Unbreakable Threads Part 6


Cotton day gown, c.1832. Photo by John Chase Photography

Cotton day gown, c.1832. Photo by John Chase Photography

Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity

"Wealth there was in the city…but for many more there was only the misery of smoke and filth and disease” [1]

In my third blog post I focused on an embroidered sweet bag dating to the 1660s. In it I discussed the horrors of the bubonic plague and its effect upon the London population. It is now with slightly mixed feelings that I am returning to a period of heightened concern about disease. The era that I want to explore this time is the early 1830s and the cholera epidemic that blighted these years. Once again you will see parallels with our own time. However, the garment that I am about to discuss highlights an important aspect of this and other pandemics both before and since; that of inequality.   

The 19th century saw a number of serious cholera pandemics which spread from Asia, through Europe and on to Britain. The first reached these shores in 1831, and by 1832 it had quickly taken hold in urban areas across the United Kingdom, where it is said to have killed over 55,000 people. This new disease, which caused terrible stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting as well as dehydration and severe pain in the limbs, could kill victims within a matter of days, or even hours. I’ve looked at several sources in order to understand the seriousness and scale of this disease, but the one I keep coming back to is an account written by Charlotte Stoker; mother of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. She had lived in Sligo, Ireland, and wrote about her own childhood experiences of the 1832 epidemic in a letter to her son in c.1875.[2] She describes, with the directness and lucidity of someone who had lived through it, an awareness of the spread of the infection and the growing feelings of fear and powerlessness that it brought:

In the days of my early youth the world was shaken by the dread of a new and terrible plague which was desolating all lands as it passed through them…It was the cholera, which for the first time appeared in Western Europe. Its bitter strange kiss, and man’s want of experience or knowledge of its nature, or how best to resist its attacks, added, if anything could, to its horrors…Rumours of the great plague broke on us from time to time, as men talk of far-off things which can never come near themselves, but gradually the terror grew on us as we heard of it coming nearer and nearer. ‘It is in France,’ they said. ‘It is in Germany,’ and ‘It is in England’.

Then, with wild affright, we began to hear the whisper passed, ‘It is in Ireland!’ Men’s senses began failing them for fear, and deeds were done, in selfish dread, enough to call down God’s direct vengeance on us.[3]

It is interesting to speculate as to whether this letter fuelled her son’s writings of vampires (‘Its bitter strange kiss’)…She goes on to record how the disease took hold very swiftly, causing some people to flee, and her own family to cease to leave their home. There is even mention of people near death in hospital being buried alive to make way for the newly infected. It is a visceral, heartfelt account of a desperate time, which eventually sees her family escape, with some difficulty, to another town to avoid infection.

Despite being relatively well-off, Charlotte Stoker’s family were not immune to the outbreak. Such diseases did kill those from the higher levels of society, but wealthier people were not affected in such numbers by cholera as those from poorer backgrounds. This was due to the conditions in which it thrived, and in which the poorest of society were forced to live. Cholera tended to strike large densely populated cities during the summer months when rubbish was more likely to rot and stink when left on the streets, and poor sanitation meant that sewerage was not properly disposed of. At the time, people did not know how cholera spread. There was a belief that it was associated with ‘miasma’ or bad air, and it must have been easy to come to this conclusion when experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of cities which had expanded too rapidly to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution. It was not until the 1840s that the doctor and anaesthetist John Snow put forward the correct theory; that it was a waterborne disease spread by the contamination of drinking water by sewerage on which the cholera microbes thrived.

Into this harrowing picture I would now like to place our rather unlikely artefact. This one-piece day gown dates to c.1832 and is made of fine white cotton. The cut is absolutely typical of the fashions of the era, which emphasised width at shoulder line, bust level and hem. The wide boat-shaped neckline is perfectly in tune with the modes of the day. The enormous sleeves look like they are taken directly from the fashion plates of the time and they are achieved by gathering large amounts of fabric to the shoulders. Called ‘gigot’ or ‘leg-of-mutton’ sleeves, the voluminous clouds of cotton they contain would have been supported beneath by stiffened or down-filled ‘sleeves puffers’, worn tied to the arm or shoulder. The bodice has been ruched horizontally, which adds to the impression of width, and these gathers are caught by vertical and diagonal bands, decorated with whitework and finished with piping. The wide skirt extended to just above the ankle and large amounts of fabric have been gauged to the waistband using cartridge pleating. It is fastened at the back with hooks and eyes, ties and buttons. The dress would have been accessorised with a highly trimmed bonnet, maybe a wide ‘Pelerine’ or stole (which echoed the shape of the neckline) and dainty silk slippers, usually in black.

The ‘hourglass’ style of this gown is very different from the columnar fashions which prevailed a decade earlier. Elements of Romanticism and Historicism had slowly been infiltrating Classical modes since around 1815. Small details such as vandyking (pointed edgings) or slashed Tudor style sleeves and a gradual lowering of the waistline eventually culminated in a radically different silhouette by the late 1820s. This brought a return to the need for constrictive corsetry once more. Fashionable narrow waistlines were now more achievable than ever with the advent of metal eyelets. These prevented laces tearing corsets if pulled tight. Corsets were still fastened only at the back at this date, but now they featured gussets to support, uplift and enhance the bust. The width of the gown at top and bottom further served to emphasise the narrow waist.

Such a charming and fashionable gown seems to challenge, in its very essence, the reality of the conditions which encouraged the spread of cholera. It is hard to believe that this perfectly pristine, white and wholly impractical garment could have been worn at the same time as the 1832 cholera outbreak. The explanation lies in the deep divisions that existed within society. This gown, beautifully cut and stitched by hand by a professional dressmaker, was an expensive item, worn by a woman of leisure in an airy home far removed from all the slums and poverty. The 1830s was a period of growing prosperity for some. The British economy had recovered from the difficulties of the Napoleonic Wars and the innovations associated with the Industrial Revolution were fundamentally altering society. The wealthier portions of the population were growing richer and more money was circulating, allowing for the purchase of luxury items, including fashionable dress. This explains the particularly exuberant nature of the fashions of this period which to our eyes are perhaps unnecessarily extreme in style. Though not totally protected from the threat of the cholera outbreak, wealthier people had the means to carve out a slightly safer environment in which to live. There they felt able to indulge in fashionable frivolities, even in the face of a global pandemic.

This was a disease which disproportionately hit the less well off. Society’s enormous numbers of urban poor were the worst affected. Malnourished and often unhealthy, many had left relatively wholesome rural environments behind and flocked to the overcrowded city slums to find work. Nevertheless, we must not assume that the privileged owner of this gown was left untouched by what went on around her. The wrench of losing loved ones before their time was a normal part of everyone’s life experience, from royalty downwards. Death, from whatever quarter, stalked the lives of the people of the past in ways that it is hard to understand today, even in the light of Covid-19.   


[1] Ford, Franklin L., Europe, 1780 – 1830 (Routledge, London, 2nd Ed., 1989), p.391

[2] Stoker, Bram, Dracula, (Penguin, London, 1993), Appendix B, pp.498 - 506

[3] Ibid. pp498 - 499

Unbreakable Threads Part 5


Silk Spencer, c.1815. Photos by John Chase Photography

Silk Spencer, c.1815. Photo by John Chase Photography

Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity

"The Battle of Waterloo is a work of art with tension and drama with its unceasing change from hope to fear and back again, change which suddenly dissolves into a moment of extreme catastrophe, a model tragedy because the fate of Europe was determined within this individual fate." ~ Stefan Zweig

Following on from the French Revolution theme of my previous post, now we are moving forward just a short step to the Napoleonic Wars. In the light of this dramatic backdrop we are about to explore one of the most loved and cherished articles of dress from the Olive Matthews Collection; a Spencer which dates to around 1815. At first glance this piece might be thought a rather frivolous item. Some might see it as a pretty, girlish garment which was probably worn by a privileged member of society; but allow me to dig a little deeper. Not only does this complicated and intricately made article hail from a time of great political instability, but the conflicts of the era have left their mark quite clearly on the style of the Spencer itself.

Covered in complex hand-worked decoration, this pale pink silk taffeta Spencer is lined with white cotton. It is embellished with complex applied decoration of rouleau loops and leaf shapes edged with piping. The cut is designed to follow the high waisted bodices of the period. Spencers were usually worn over the white muslin dresses which were so fashionable during the early years of the 19th century. Part of ‘Walking Dress’ until the mid-1820s, which might also have incorporated a matching hat or bonnet, Spencers were usually made from coloured silk. This silk fabric provided a more structured contrast to the soft, flowing muslin of the dress beneath, as well as giving a little protection from the cold. It is important to remember when looking at this garment that every element of it has been made by hand. Such time-consuming work is a hallmark of the outerwear and accessories of the early 19th century, which saw a flowering of intricately worked applied decoration, particularly in the form of rouleaux. These qualities are doubtless what particularly attracted Olive Matthews to this piece when she first acquired it during the early 20th century. Recently seen at London’s Two Temple Place exhibition ‘Unbound’, this charming Spencer is a perennially popular garment with visitors and researchers alike. Both fashion students and designers have been inspired by it, and a version is even to be found in the recent film adaptation of Emma. The film’s costume designer Alexandra Byrne viewed it at Chertsey Museum as part of her research.

The dating of this garment to around 1815 is important here because it was of course the year of the Battle of Waterloo. This most famous of battles finally brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars, which had been raging throughout Europe since 1803. A period of major conflicts between different coalitions, it had resulted in part from the instability stirred up by the French Revolution (as explored in my previous post). After coming to power in 1799 and establishing France on a firmer footing both economically and militarily, Napoleon embarked on a period of aggressive conquests and empire building. This, for a brief time, resulted in French control over much of Europe before the Emperor was subdued by the combined forces of his enemies, of which Britain was a major player. The campaigns and battles of the Napoleonic Wars raged from Russia to the Iberian Peninsula, and tens of thousands of troops of different nationalities waged war, marched and occasionally looted and pillaged their way through the nations of Europe. The civilian population of Britain remained physically separate from all this conflict, but the threat came dangerously close at times, especially during the famous Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In addition, such instability would have caused problems with trade in Europe and resulted in shortages.  The people of the UK would have experienced a range of emotions from joy at major victories to extreme concern when things took a more serious turn for the Allies. Such emotions must have ebbed and flowed through the 12-year conflict; never quite leaving the consciousness and causing feelings of insecurity and stress. The relief and great celebrations after the Battle of Waterloo and the final exile of Napoleon to the island of St Helena are well documented. They are testament to the collective concern bubbling just below the surface for so many during the Napoleonic war era.

Returning now to the Spencer; this form of clothing is said to have originated in the 1790s and been named after George, 2nd Earl Spencer, a Whig politician, connoisseur and collector of books. The story goes that he had a tailcoat modified and shortened after the tails were caught and burnt in a fire. It is said to have been the forerunner of the military mess jacket, but also gave its name to the shortened women’s jacket that we see here. That there should have been a military connection is unsurprising considering the era that it comes from. However, more telling perhaps is the decoration of our Spencer, which has a distinctly military feel. The leaf shapes at the shoulders form something akin to epaulettes, and the decoration at the cuffs is reminiscent of the braiding found on the uniforms of officers.

The group of soldiers that particularly captured the public imagination, at the time and for many years later, were the Hussars. Taking their name from Hungarian military horsemen, these cavalry regiments proliferated across Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was rather late to the party, only naming light cavalry regiments Hussars after 1806 when the Prince of Wales was particularly taken with their swashbuckling image. British Hussar regiments saw action during many of the key conflicts of the era, including the Battle of Corunna in January 1809 and the Battle of Vitoria in Spain in 1813. Hussars were also incorporated into the brigade that charged the French cavalry and infantry at the Battle of Waterloo. The colourful uniforms of these dashing light cavalry regiments were particularly elaborate and only served to fuel their public image which identified them as a notorious, fearless and elite group of fighters. Generally moustachioed, they wore a ‘Dolman’ or short, fitted jacket with horizontal gold or silver braiding on the breast with lines of braid also embellishing the cuffs. A matching ‘Pelisse’ or short over-jacket, similarly decorated, was slung over one shoulder and tight trousers, reinforced with leather to prevent wear when riding, were worn, often with braid stitched along the side seam. A busby was the usual head wear and ‘Hessian’ boots; tight leather boots cut with a curve at the front and decorated with a braid tassel were generally worn. A sabre completed the outfit.

It is any wonder that the Hussars inspired a number of civilian fashions during the early 19th century? These included the wearing of tightly fitted coats and Hessian boots for men and elements of uniform-inspired cut and decoration in women’s wear as evidenced in our own Spencer jacket. The design, which somehow manages to achieve the dual qualities of femininity and sharp up-to-the-minute style, is clearly the product, either consciously or subconsciously, of an era of political upheaval and heightened military activity.


Unbreakable Threads Part 4


Cotton & silk gown, c.1795 - 99 & souvenir fan, c.1790. Photos by John Chase Photography

Cotton & silk gown, c.1795 - 99 & souvenir fan, c.1790.

Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”[1]

The Olive Matthews Collection at Chertsey Museum contains a group of wonderful garments from the 18th century, and despite dating from the very end of this period, the items I’m about to discuss are particularly special. They are survivors from the time of the French Revolution. One, a souvenir fan, is an artefact that we know has a direct link to an event of the revolutionary era. The other is a gown which dates from the second half of the 1790s. This piece may well have been worn in England rather than France, but nonetheless it shows evidence of the influence of these tumultuous times on the styles of dress worn.

The gown in question dates to between 1795 and 1799. It is made from cotton and green silk taffeta. The cotton at the back of the bodice is pleated to fit and then left loose to provide fullness which extends into a wide train. The cut is designed to show off the fabric, which was imported from India and costly to purchase. At first glance the trailing floral design appears to be printed, but tiny differences in the repeat of the pattern indicate that it was in fact hand painted or ‘pencilled’. This process involved painstakingly mordant dyeing each colour separately. The design itself, though produced in India, was intended to appeal to the Western market. The gown is a rare example of a transitional style. The fitted silk bodice fronts and the way that the sleeves are set back at the shoulders remind us of the formal silk dresses seen during the majority of the 18th century. However, the higher waistline, the cotton fabric and the flowing lines were relatively new innovations, and these would soon develop into the even higher waisted cotton muslin dresses that became fashionable at the very end of the 1700s and into the early 1800s.

The fan is an example of a souvenir that was once produced in large numbers from low-cost materials but has now become a rare survival from the revolutionary period in France. The throw-away and fragile nature of such an object means that few have come down to us, and we are lucky to have such an object of social, historical and political significance in our collection. It is a brisé fan, made from sandalwood and pasted with printed paper vignettes. The central vignette features a crowded scene and bears the title `Vue du Champ de Mars et du Pacte Fédératif du 14 juillet 1790'. Striped ribbon is threaded through the sticks. This must once have been the Tricolore colours of red, white and blue, but has now faded to green, white and pink. The fan commemorates the Fête de la Fédération of 1790. Events were held throughout France on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, but the largest gathering (of over 20,000 people) took place on the Champs de Mars near Paris where a vast stadium was built. During this relatively calm period of the Revolution, it was thought, erroneously, that the political struggle was over, and people swore an oath (the Pacte Fédératif) to France and the newly constitutional monarchy. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were present, and King Louis was also required to swear an oath. Our fan may well have been sold at the event or on the streets of Paris soon after, where curious tourists were known to have visited. An enterprising producer must have spotted an opportunity to capitalise on an event that clearly drew the crowds. Commemorative fans of this kind were not new and they were popular for a reason; here was an object which marked the occasion, whilst offering the added bonus of being a useful and portable dress accessory.

France in the 1790s was experiencing social and political upheaval on a massive scale which was to have repercussions throughout the Western world and had a direct bearing on the course of history. Between 1789 and 1799, the Revolution saw the old order overthrown and a republic established, before Napoleon seized power. Though some positive things were accomplished at this time, such as the abolition of slavery and feudalism within French dominions, and the introduction of some more democratic processes, none of these events were achieved without great social unrest, violence and bloodshed. The period that witnessed the most extreme activity was the ‘Reign of Terror’, which lasted from 1793 to 1794. It was reported that at least 16,500 people died under the guillotine at this time, whilst tens of thousands of other prisoners died before they could be tried for their crimes. At the height of the Terror, the merest hint of anti-revolutionary sentiments could lead to execution. Though the Jacobin government of the time justified this extreme activity; stating that their revolutionary goals could not be achieved without the complete silencing of all opposition, there was eventually a backlash and the Reign of Terror ended in July 1794. By 1795 the ‘Directoire’ period heralded a more decadent era when the elite, some of whom hailed from the decimated aristocracy, were once more able to fraternise more freely in public.

Dress played an important role during the revolutionary era. It was harnessed as a way of identifying those who supported the cause. The ‘Bonnet de la Liberté’, ‘Bonnet Phrygian’ or ‘Cap of Liberty’ was a potent symbol of the Revolution in France. This red cap, made from wool or cotton and worn with the tip bent over, had its roots in Ancient Rome and Greece. Here it was said to have been worn by liberated slaves. It was adopted as part of the uniform of the French revolutionary army and by politicians and members of the public who supported the cause. It became part of the visual language of the Revolution, appearing on statues, milestones and on top of flag poles. The cap bore the pleated circular cockade with the tricolore colours of red, white and blue and this dress item became itself a distinctive and memorable symbol of the Revolution.

In its turn, fashionable clothing also reflected the new ideas that began to circulate. For much of the 18th century fashions had been dictated by the higher orders of society, with styles evolving from the Court dress of the aristocracy. These modes tended to feature stiff cone-shaped bodices (achieved by the wearing of boned stays), full skirts and petticoats in heavy silks. It is true that works by writers such as Rousseau had begun to bring about change during the 1780s when fashionable women, including Queen Marie Antoinette, started to favour simple white cotton round or wrapping gowns with wide silk sashes. However, these fashions were more influenced by a wish for greater freedom of movement, which led to the adoption of dress styles formerly worn only by children. Though part of the landscape of more generally liberal views on dress, the later 1790s gown that we have here also shows early signs of revolutionary concepts and influences on fashion. As the old order was swept away, so were their fashions. Cotton was felt to be a more ‘democratic’ material than silk, and the higher waisted looser style shows a move towards the hallmarks of Classical Greek and Roman dress.

Despite the upheavals of the Revolution, Paris remained the centre of fashion throughout the era. The more extreme versions of the new styles adopted generally though Europe from the 1790s to the early 1800s originated there. The ‘Directore’ period of 1795 to 99 was known for the advent of the ‘Merveilleuses’ and ‘Incroyables’; trend setters (some might say ‘fashion victims’) who emerged during the freer political landscape after the Terror. The female ‘Merveilleuses’ adopted exaggerated looks including fine, almost transparent dresses with high waistlines and strappy leather sandals in the Ancient Greek style. The ‘Incroyables’ were known for their over-large bicorne hats and tight-fitting coats with wide lapels. Watered down versions of all of these looks duly made their way into mainstream fashion. These significantly more liberated styles were radically different from what came before.

Although Britain did not experience a Revolution of its own during the 18th century, there was concern that it could happen here too, and this country still felt the repercussions of the massive changes that were taking place beyond its boundaries and beyond its control. Of course, fashion was not the only area affected. Conflict with France resulted, travel was curtailed, and the movement of goods hampered. Our ancestors too were watching the chaos unfold across Europe and fearing its spread to these shores.   

Please do keep an eye on social media for announcements of more blog posts to come on the theme of Dressing through Adversity.


[1] Dickens, Charles, A Tale of Two Cities, opening line

Unbreakable Threads Part 3


Embroidered 'Swete bag', c.1640 - 1670

Embroidered 'Swete bag', c.1640 - 1670, Image by John Chase Photography

Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity


Having explored an outfit from World War 1 in my last post, I now want to take you much further back in time - more than 350 years in fact. In this piece I will consider an item relating to the 1660s and the era of the Great Plague of London. At this point I need to issue a warning - I was in two minds about writing this post, given that drawing comparisons between a period of pestilence in the past and our own battle with COVID 19 might be a little too near the mark for some people. I concluded that for me, my thoughts and fears about our current situation can in some way open up a new channel of renewed empathy and understanding for the plight of those who came before us. But for those of a sensitive disposition - if you feel that you don’t like the way this is going, maybe you should skip this particular post.

The item from Chertsey Museum’s Olive Matthews Collection I am discussing this time is a small accessory and a rare survival dating from between 1640 and 1670. It is a drawstring bag measuring only 13.5 cm long and about 10cm wide. Made from linen canvas, it is embroidered in Rococo stitch with stylised flowers using silk thread. The background is of Elizabethan knitting stitch and this is carried out in silver passing thread. The upper edge is bound in cream silk and holes for the drawstring cords are worked in buttonhole stitch with red and green silk thread. The cord itself is of plaited silk, finished with silk floss tassels. Three further tassels at the base of the purse are suspended on bound rings. The bag is lined with cream silk.

Such bags were often referred to as ‘swete bags’. In the seventeenth century the term ‘swete’ could be used to describe sweet-smelling things, and these small decorative bags were often filled with sachets of perfumed powder or herbs. They were carried on the person, perhaps in a pocket or hanging from a belt, where they could be easily accessed.

Why might someone feel the need to carry such an item? The requirement for a pleasantly perfumed bag, that could be easily held to one’s nose at a moment’s notice, quickly becomes apparent when we learn about the conditions experienced in the towns and cities of the seventeenth century.  In order to find out more and working from home as I am, I have been compelled to refer to my own library as well as hitting the search button on Google. On my shelves I have found two very useful books which may help to broaden understanding of the period and which I have drawn upon for our context here. Peter Ackroyd’s London, The Biography, a wonderful source written imaginatively and informatively, is one. Perhaps more surprisingly, the other is a children’s book which was published in 1939 by Cambridge University Press – Boys and Girls of History by Eileen and Rhoda Power. The latter was given to my mother during the Second World War: on Christmas 1943 when she was 12 years old. It is a little worse for wear now but contains accounts of the lives of children from a variety of eras. The section on the London pestilence of 1665 draws on known source material from the 1600s and is in fact very helpful in setting the scene. I remember my mother reading this to me when I was a child. I was particularly haunted by the section of this book which covers the London plague and fire and instinctively turned to it today.

Of course we don’t know who owned the ‘Swete bag’ or where they lived, but we do know that it was made around the time of the Great Plague of London. Most of the information we have relates to the capital city, so for our purposes today let’s concentrate on that. When looking at London the comparison can be drawn between the wealthy people’s mansions which were to be found along what is now the Strand; their gardens stretching down to the river Thames, and the much smaller houses situated in courts and narrow streets in the poorest parishes such as St Giles, where the 1665 plague is first said to have emerged. The filth and stench of the river Fleet, which was an open sewer filled with rubbish was well known and down the middle of most thoroughfares there were gutters which channelled waste of all kinds. Rotting rubbish might be heaped at the end of many streets ready for disposal outside the city walls. There is also mention of the open cess pools which were found behind the homes of the less well off. These were fed by several houses and would have added to the general stink. Furthermore, the industries just outside the centre such as soap making, brewing and dying caused further noxious odours to drift into the city alongside the smoke from thousands of hearths. It is easy to see how disease could have spread rapidly in such an environment, and also why one might need access to the scent of something more pleasant whilst negotiating the streets of London. Bad smells were all around and were an unavoidable part of everyday life, even for the better off (and this bag was an expensive item which must have belonged originally to a wealthy person).

It is interesting to note descriptions of what London was like once the pestilence had started to take hold. Though do bear in mind that the owner of our ‘swete bag’ may have moved away to the country to avoid infection. Ackroyd draws on observations about late 17th century London that are quite telling in this current lock-down era. He describes the banning of public assemblies and notes the silence of the usually bustling streets as people limited their time away from home and trading and socialising virtually stopped. It was also observed that citizens who did venture out chose to walk down the middle of the streets and avoided chance meetings with others. Grass started to grow along the thoroughfares. The sounds of the city also altered, with the rush of the waters of the river Thames now clearly audible and the constant tolling of bells. [1] The smells would have changed too, with even more choking smoke being produced by burning sea coal and sulphurous brimstone, fires of which were lit at regular intervals through the streets.

The presence of herbs in ‘swete bags’ is also relevant here. The progression of the plague led people to turn more than ever to herbalists, apothecaries and independent healers for remedies to treat and ward off disease. These sometimes trod a fine line between practical help and ‘quackery’ in the products that they sold. The fear and panic caused by the advent of the plague led many people to turn to those who purported to have some medical or healing knowledge to provide hope and to alleviate their worries. They may have believed that the scent of certain herbs, if inhaled at times of exposure, might provide protection from infection. Superstition was also rife, with many carrying charms to ward off disease in a time when the ‘magical’ and the ‘scientific’ were still very much intertwined. In such times of great peril when state measures seemed to be failing, it was only natural that some people might seek alternative ways to help themselves.

This then was the world in which our precious little accessory first existed. At a time when disease was rife and noxious odours were everywhere it may have been called upon for assistance both practical and psychological. This beautifully hand-made item could have provided some small and sweet-smelling consolation; and perhaps the possibility of protection, to an unknown individual negotiating an environment very much more uncertain and perilous than our own, even in these current challenging times.  


Please do keep an eye on social media for announcements of more blog posts to come on the theme of Dressing through Adversity.


[1] Ackroyd, Peter, London, The Biography (Vintage, London), p.206

Unbreakable Threads Part 2


Seaside Walking Dress, circa 1917

Seaside Walking Dress, circa 1917, Images by John Chase Photography

Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity

Keep Smiling Through

The Olive Matthews Collection at Chertsey Museum contains a wonderful garment which is described as a ‘Seaside Walking Dress’. It dates to around 1917 and is an excellent example of dressing through adversity.

This dress is made from blue and white striped cotton and has a white muslin sailor collar. It is an attractive and comfortable garment with a nautical feel. Ideal for a summer’s day by the sea, it falls firmly into the category of ‘seaside dress’; a branch of light-hearted fashion for more active pursuits, which had existed since the 19th century. Despite looking quite simple, its construction is complex by our modern standards. It is made up of two pieces; a long-sleeved, full-skirted dress and a separate over-tunic. The hidden bodice of the dress is quite close-fitting with hooks and eyes fastening down a central panel of white cotton and along an overlap at waist level. Side panels of the striped cotton are present and the generously cut sleeves are gathered into the shoulders. The cuffs are cut into points where they meet the sleeves and turned back to reveal more white muslin. Tiny fabric-covered buttons are found at the wrist. The V-necked tunic fastens down the left side and over the left shoulder with hooks and eyes. Vertical tucks provide simple decoration and shape while further decorative features include bands of appliquéd cotton turned so that the stripes run horizontally. This inventive device is also used to add interest to the skirt, which falls to mid-calf level in keeping with the new shorter hemlines which had begun to rise around 1915. Half belts with buttons give further structure and the hem of the tunic curves gently down to lead-weighted points at the sides, echoing the points at the cuffs. The fashion for layering with over-tunics had begun around 1911. Here it softens the line and hints at the drop-waist styles of the 1920s to come. The weights are designed to stop the tunic blowing up and causing a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ in the gusty seaside breezes. This charming outfit bears the label of ‘Madame Campbell, Court Dressmaker, Bournemouth’. The impeccable cut and quality of construction show us that this establishment was producing garments of the highest quality and may have specialised in seaside dress due to its coastal location.

Dating as it does from the middle of the Great War, the very existence of this dress suggests that, despite the horrors of conflict occurring just across the channel, some leisure activities continued in a relatively normal way on the home front. At the time when this outfit was created, the artillery bombardments of the Western Front could clearly be heard in coastal towns. Yet we know that people did continue to visit seaside resorts in the UK during the summer months (though day tripping to Scarborough could no longer take place for a time after the town was bombarded by German naval guns in December 1914). Tourists might bathe in the sea, sit on the beach or promenade along the sea front, just as they had done before the war, albeit with the nagging concerns of wartime still ever-present at the back of their minds.

The ‘Home Front’ was an incredibly important concept during the First World War. The idea that some semblance of normality existed back home was part of general attempts at morale boosting for the troops. It also helped to keep up the spirits of those who were left behind. Women’s dress was a part of this. In contrast to the Second World War, when clothing was rationed and the Utility Scheme implemented, the trade in women’s fashionable dress continued during World War 1. The latest modes were still emanating from Paris; trickling down to be imitated in the creation of more affordable offerings from shops, department stores and home dressmaking designs. Fashions changed in reaction to the new freedoms and occupations of women in society, with raised skirt hems and looser styles coming to the fore, but essentially a wide variety of modish clothing continued to be available throughout the conflict for those who could afford it.

Somehow this seaside walking dress speaks to me of brief and unexpected moments of pleasure on sunny days (just like today) in the face of unprecedented and unpredictable times. Perhaps the wearer was able to carefully put aside the stresses and strains of the war for a short time as she walked along some windy seafront in her new and beautifully cut clothes.

Please do keep an eye on social media for announcements of more blog posts to come on the theme of Dressing through Adversity.

Unbreakable Threads Part 1


Stepping through history: Elastic sided woman's boot, late 1840s

Stepping through history: Elastic sided woman's boot, late 1840s

Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity

As I write the first of this new series I am sitting in a makeshift office at home. My other half is working elsewhere in the house and my children are also in various corners trying to get on with their schoolwork. It is the first day that we have all had to face this challenge of a working/school day together in the house and it feels like the beginning of a very long road. As events relating to COVID 19 unfold at an alarming rate and the feelings of uncertainty mount, I find myself casting around for something to calm my nerves. Well gin is one option, but that’s not appropriate when I’m working, so how about gaining reassurance from the fact that adversity is nothing new?  We can all learn from the lives of others who experienced equally difficult challenges in the past. To me, thinking about their lives is a great comfort. It helps me to be sure that despite our current situation, we will come through it, just as many of our forebears survived their own, equally daunting, trials.

Simply starting close to home is a way in for me. My mother lived through the Second World War, and my grandmother, born in 1900, lived through two World Wars and the influenza pandemic of 1918. They knew feelings of uncertainty, fear and the sense that things were moving quickly and way beyond their control all too well during these periods. They also knew that they had to step up, pull together, cooperate and help others for the sake of the common good – different circumstances but the same basic feelings and worries. I then started thinking about other events in the past that shook people’s lives in similar ways. The list is of course endless, and somehow this reassured me.

Though many of the people who experienced these events are now no longer with us, some have left behind them the material objects that they owned or made use of during these times. So many different types of historical objects survive in Museums and in private collections, but my focus is on a specific area. I am charged with interpreting and caring for the Olive Matthews Collection, a nationally significant group of fashionable dress dating from 1600 to the present day which is now housed in Chertsey Museum. I know more than most that the clothes and accessories people have worn offer particularly revealing clues about the past. Garments are imprinted on so many different levels with the evidence of the times they hail from. This means they often carry the physical marks of the people who wore them, but also so much more than that. The clothes of the past are still steeped in the events, passions, fears, tragedies and triumphs that they were first witness to. You only need to learn how to read and understand them correctly to unlock some of those experiences once more.

So with this in mind, I have challenged myself to think about garments from the collection that are linked to periods of difficulty, uncertainty or momentous historical events. When you start to dig deeper there are many. During each of this series of posts, I will explore a single item of dress from the Olive Matthews Collection. I’ll put it into context and I’ll investigate it in detail. The very survival of these pieces gives me hope, and learning about the experiences of the people who wore them also helps to give me the courage to face today’s adversities. Perhaps getting lost for a moment in the details of these important relics might also give you a brief restpite from today’s events.

Check our social media platforms for notifications of new posts as they are published on our website, and in the meantime, keep safe and well. 

Part 7


The replica being worn by Lauren on location in Wonston and at the Museum in front of the original garments

The replica being worn by Lauren on location in Wonston and at the Museum in front of the original garments

It has been a busy few weeks here at Chertsey Museum. Our beautiful replica wedding garments were finally launched at the opening event for our current fashion exhibition Folded and Moulded – Pleating and Draping in Fashion. The original ensemble is part of the exhibition and it was amazing to see the replica pieces worn alongside the real 1780 ones as Lauren, our Jane Bailey for the night, posed in front of them. The evening was the culmination of a huge amount of work by Louise, Steph and the rest of the team at Past Pleasures, and our thanks go to them and to Lauren for carrying off the ensemble so beautifully. Seeing the originals on display is always amazing, but to see the same outfit worn by a real person takes the whole experience to another level. Everything seemed to fall into place somehow and as we toasted to 50 years of the Olive Matthews Trust, the project was indeed the perfect way of marking such an occasion.

Those of you who have been following this blog will remember that we also planned to produce a film as part of the process of creating this wonderful educational resource. The filming on location took place on Monday 23rd September. I arrived early at Holy Trinity Church, Wonston; the location of the wedding of Jane Bailey and James Wickham. All the way I had been keeping an eye on the weather as a few spots of rain hit my windscreen, interspersed by spells of sunshine. I was worried about the dress, the shoes, the wig - everything really - I knew there was a risk that they could be damaged if they became wet. I hoped that we would be able to film Jane walking towards the church through the churchyard, and, quite sadly, passing her own final resting place as she went. The work also involved drone footage which was thankfully possible despite a stiff breeze. Our film maker TJ was able to capture Lauren (who once more donned the outfit for us and looked perfect for the role) walking slowly around the peaceful setting of the churchyard and through the door at the back of the church. Luckily fate was on our side and we were able to get all the shots we needed before the heavens opened and we completed the filming inside the church.

Filming something of this nature, which conjures up elements of the past, is of course fraught with difficulties. We would never have the budget which allowed us to change the modern aspects of the church and make the atmosphere more 18th Century. Also we weren’t going to be attempting to re-create the wedding itself with a James Wickham, a cast of guests and a Priest. From the start the principal idea was to show the clothes being worn by a person rather than a mannequin, which would be especially helpful for the times when we weren’t able to dress a living model in them. Even when a model is present at an education session, the film will help to show the gown in context. The location of the actual marriage seemed to be the most suitable place to do this. It is a fine line that we tread between nostalgia and saccharine sweet sentimentality. Time will tell whether we have managed it, but as soon as the film is finished you’ll be the first to know!

Part 6

Re-creating the pattern from the original fabric

Re-creating the pattern from the original fabric


I mentioned last week that I would be writing about filming on location in Wonston which takes place at the end of September. Well I couldn’t wait that long to update you on developments with the creation of the replicas as these are almost complete now. I was really pleased to receive some great shots of the printing process. Louise from Past Pleasures has done an amazing job of re-creating the sprigged wreath and ribbon decoration which is woven into the original silk but printed and hand-painted onto the modern fabric. This kind of painstaking attention to detail is what will make the replica gown such an important and fascinating part of our Education resources. Our thanks go to the very talented Louise for all her care and attention, and to her colleagues at Past Pleasures. Here she outlines the process she carried out. As you will see it is very complex and time consuming:

The first stage in printing is to replicate the design of floral sprigs and ribbons to scale, and transfer this design to acetate for exposing onto a mesh screen for printing. To do this, I blew up the design from photographs taken at the first visit to the museum, traced these on a light box and scanned them into the computer. I then scaled up the design to the measurements I had taken, and printed these designs to scale.

A grid was then worked out, based on the width of the fabric. The fabric was 19”, and the design was carefully placed on the grid, ensuring that the repeat of the flipped design was correctly placed. Once the initial grid was created, it was then checked at the museum alongside the original, at the second visit to the museum, and fitting.

Once the design was confirmed as correct, it was then transferred to acetate by tracing manually with a felt tip. This could have been done using professional computer software, but as this isn’t something we usually do at PP, it was done manually. The design was then taken to a specialist screen printing company, and exposed onto a custom made screen.

Once back at the work room, the next step was to cut all the fabric panels to the width required. Then the table had to be prepped, by covering with calico and the panels pinned down in place. A line of thread was set up along each panel to ensure that the print was placed in the correct place every time.

The fabric binder was mixed with pearl binder, and the correct pigments, to create a light ivory shade, which once printed would allow me to follow an outline when painting in the coloured sections. The print is done manually, with two people holding each side of the screen, and a third person applying the binder and using a squeegee to push the ink through the mesh.

As there are 10 different colours, it would have been impractical to try and create multiple screens to overlay. It would have been very difficult to line up the designs accurately every time, and so the decision was made to paint into these outlines manually. I started with the dark green, moved onto the light green and then filled in the multiple coloured flowers across the whole design. There are three motifs on repeat, and I also had to work out a grid to ensure the repeat was painted correctly.

11 panels have been printed and hand painted before assembling, and the bodice and sleeve panels are cut out before painting, to minimise time and to ensure the design is in the correct placement to replicate the original.

We are going to have an incredibly special garment at the end of this process. Can’t wait to see the finished ensemble now!

Part 5

Fittings and re-creating the fabric design

Fittings and re-creating the fabric design


It has been a couple of months since I updated you on progress with our replica 1780 wedding ensemble. We have not been idle during that time – far from it.

An important visit from Louise and Steph saw the fitting process taking shape. For some events we will make use of a costumed interpreter from Past Pleasures, but on a more day-to-day basis we needed to make sure that a member of staff would fit into the garments. Step forward Jane, our Costume Assistant, who has kindly agreed to be our model. Jane stood patiently for hours while a cotton toile was fitted to her; doubtless withstanding the odd pin prick!

In fact, this experience would have been similar to that of the original wearer of the ensemble. As with all clothing that was required to fit the body closely, Jane Bailey’s wedding outfit was definitely made to measure. Jane, probably with the help of other members of her family, would have sourced the fabric from a mercer; choosing just the right design from a selection unwound from bolts of cloth stored in the mercer’s shop. The style is fresh and attractive with its small wreaths, ribbons and sprigs, but not in the absolute latest style (which might have been more likely to incorporate stripes at this date). Although we know some wealthy people from the provinces sourced fabric from London through family and friends or by travelling to the capital specially, perhaps the slightly less fashionable style suggests a local textile merchant.  Since more than one fitting is likely to have been required, Jane may well have had her outfit made up by a nearby local dressmaker, or mantua-maker as they were still sometimes called. We know that Jane hailed from a wealthy farming family and the quality of her garments reflect her social status. I am sure that no expense would have been spared in the creation of her wedding ensemble. Indeed we too have taken great pains to re-create this important group.

In addition to fittings and progress in the recreation of the pattern on the fabric, we have also been busy shooting footage for the film that will accompany the replica. I mentioned in my first blog posts that we hoped to show the replica being worn in Holy Trinity church, Wonston. That idea is now taking shape and TJ our film maker recently spent a day filming some of the material that will eventually make it into the final edit. We were able to capture some of the work being done on the garments at the studios of Past Pleasures. The busy and skilled hands of Louise, Steph and their colleagues were captured while they tackled complex and challenging work including the making of the stays, the trimming of the hat and the production of further undergarments such as the shift and the false rump (a wonderfully straightforward 18th century name for an article which holds the skirt out at the back a little like a bustle from the 19th century). We then returned to the Museum and made use of a hired mechanical turntable so that we could film the original garments in the round. TJ set up his lights in our fashion gallery and Jane and I made sure that the dress, hat and shoes looked as perfect as possible for their big moment. This footage will help to contextualise the shots of our costumed interpreter as she re-traces Jane Bailey’s steps at Holy Trinity next month. I’ll be back soon to update you about our filming experiences ‘on location’ in Wonston.        

Part 4

Research materials at Past Pleasures

Research materials at Past Pleasures


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.        

Part 3

Louise taking measurements from the bodice

Louise taking measurements from the bodice


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.     

Part 2

Images of Holy Trinity Church, Wonston, Hampshire

Images of Holy Trinity Church, Wonston, Hampshire


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.

First instalment


Jane Bailey's wedding ensemble, 1780. Image by John Chase Photography

Jane Bailey's wedding ensemble, 1780. Image by John Chase Photography

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!