Unbreakable Threads Part 2
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
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.
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!
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!
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.
Last time I wrote about starting research for the replica making process for our 18th century wedding ensemble. For this instalment I wanted to talk about the experience of going to see where all the magic happens – the studios of Past Pleasures.
I have known Louise from Past Pleasures for many years. She used to volunteer here at Chertsey Museum and was then commissioned to make a number of items for us, including a replica of our Tudor nightcap and a Tudor ensemble for our Education department. Despite this, I had never had the opportunity to see where the work to make the replicas takes place. I managed to wangle an invitation during one of our meetings and I jumped at the chance to see the workshop and some of the treasures that I knew must be there.
Past Pleasures is based in Witley in Surrey, so not too far away. My sat nav took me down through winding country lanes in this leafy and quiet part of Surrey and eventually brought me to a small industrial estate. I rang on the doorbell and was given admittance into the studio and offices where I was introduced to everyone and offered a welcome cup of coffee. It felt like a lovely creative environment. Louise and Steph sat down with me and showed me swatches of fabric samples they had been gathering. This is one of the most tricky parts of the project. The beautiful papery silk of the originals, with its tiny raised spots and attractive coloured flower sprigs, is no longer available to us. They simply don’t make textiles of such fine and delicate quality any more.
The actual silk of the 1780s gown and petticoat was almost certainly woven in Spitalfields, East London. This was an important centre for silk weaving and much of the 18th century figured silk, or silk brocade, that we find in British collections today originated from there. Skilled weavers, many of them descended from protestant Huguenots exiled from France during the 17th century, worked in the area. They produced silk for the dressmaking and furnishing trades which had beautiful flowing or sprigged designs, often with complicated backgrounds and sometimes with silver or gold thread included. Spitalfields silk has its own characteristic style which, after seeing a lot of silk designs, becomes recognisable to the trained eye.
From the 16th to the 18th century silk would have been woven on a large draw loom, which was extremely complicated and time-consuming to set up. This type of loom had been used in the Middle East and Asia for many centuries before being adopted in Europe. It had two separate forms of harnesses incorporated into the same loom and took up a large amount of space; requiring a ‘draw boy’ to assist the weaver in the completion of the complex patterns. The results were narrow widths (ranging from 18 to 29 inches wide) of silk brocade with gorgeous naturalistic designs which followed the fashions for increasing simplicity in silk design as the 18th century progressed. Although we are committed to producing beautiful replicas, the re-creation of a draw loom was not going to be on the cards. Suitable equivalents of plain ivory silk taffeta without the spot design in the background were discussed, the plan being for Louise to print and paint the sprigged design instead of weaving it.
Next we discussed the undergarments for the ensemble, most specifically the stays. We consulted various text and pattern books such as Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 5, a recent and important publication by the School of Historical Dress. Steph from Past Pleasures also showed me a pair of original late 18th century stays from her own collection. They are fascinating, partly because they are in a state of some disrepair. Stays of this period are extremely rare and even those in poor condition are much sought after. As these were coming apart in some places, it was possible to investigate the interlinings and the whalebone inside – essential for the purposes of re-creating Jane Bailey’s pair. Unlike our own stays, these had soft leather edging under the arms, clearly designed to make the stays more comfortable at this key pressure point on the body. It was also possible to see that tiny hand-made metal or lead eyelets had been inserted into the lacing holes before being covered with stitching – something that I was not aware of in the construction of stays from this era. I could clearly see that Past Pleasures were undertaking painstaking research both with secondary and original source material, all of which would feed into the production Jane Bailey’s wedding gown.
It all starts with the original garments. In order to create an authentic replica of our 1780 wedding ensemble, it is necessary to go back to the clothes themselves and make some very detailed records of exactly what we are dealing with.
On a cloudy morning in February I welcomed Louise and Steph from Past Pleasures to the Museum for an appointment with the past. The beautiful and remarkably well preserved pieces were removed from storage and carefully placed on a table in our Research Room. The gown and petticoat are made from a papery ivory silk taffeta which has been brocaded or woven with little wreaths of flowers, flowing ribbons and sprigs on a background of tiny white spots. Though the garments are in good condition, they are so delicate and vulnerable to damage from handling. There would be no question of anyone taking the pieces out of the Museum for study, so Louise and Steph had to come here to do their analysis.
When I take dress items out of storage for mounting, display or research I sometimes have to stop myself from thinking too hard about them, a bit like not looking directly at the sun, otherwise my imagination would run riot and I’d never get any work done! All historic objects have that link to the past – the feeling that someone long dead has touched them and used them – but somehow the connection is magnified when it comes to clothes. Garments are such personal things. They often contain imprints of the individual who wore them; their sweat, their makeup, that accidental stain as some food or drink dropped onto them, even their perfume sometimes. These clothes walked with their wearers as they moved though their lives, picking up memories and experiences as they went. Now we can only speculate about those thoughts and feelings, but the basic experiences are roughly the same. We wear clothes on our bodies now and they wore them then – it helps us to make links in our mind’s eye; easier perhaps than understanding the meaning of historic objects that no longer play a part in our lives.
As part of the painstaking process of re-creation, every aspect of the dress and petticoat were photographed and measured. Sketches were made so that proper patterns of each panel piece could be drawn up. It is worth remembering that although this will look and feel like the original, it has to fit a modern body. This is perhaps the most tricky part – grading the patterns to fit someone else yet still holding on to the feel of the originals.
Louise and Steph would be back to do more work with our pieces, but this felt like an important milestone – the project was properly underway.
In my last post I mentioned the film we plan to make of Jane Bailey’s replica wedding ensemble. This week I was lucky enough to visit the location. We are due to make the film in September of this year, once all the garments have been completed, and it was necessary to go down to Wonston in Hampshire to have another look at the church where Jane Bailey and James Wickham married on the 9th November 1780.
I last visited Holy Trinity back in 2007 when I was researching a paper for the journal Costume (Evans, G.,‘Marriage à la Mode, An Eighteenth-Century Wedding Dress, Hat and Shoes Set from the Olive Matthews Collection, Chersey Museum’, Costume, vol.42, 2008). Having done lots of research on the garments and the families of Jane and James, I felt a strong sense of connection to them as I drove along leafy, quiet country lanes, parked my car and walked though the sunny churchyard into the church. After all, this was the place where a real person once wore our real garment. We know that the ensemble was actually worn here nearly 239 years ago. There is a sense of poignancy too as Jane and James are both buried in the family tomb in the churchyard.
Holy Trinity is not as it was in the 1780s. A fire in 1908 caused significant damage, and it has been extended since Jane’s time. She would have entered though the back of the church, not the side door as we do now. Despite this, we were still walking along the same ground and it feels right to be filming the replica being worn in this place. We won’t attempt to re-create the church as it was – we don’t have the budget for that - instead the film will be an echo of what went before.
The Churchwarden very kindly showed TJ (our film maker) and I around the church and we were able to discus the logistics of the filming and scout the spots we will use on the day. The aim is for our costumed re-enactor to tread in Jane’s footsteps, but only in a manner of speaking as the scene will be different. You could compare it to a ghost walking through a house that has altered since it was first occupied.
After our meeting I was kindly taken to more places that Jane would once have known. Her local parish church in Stoke Charity, just down the road from Wonston, is a real gem. John Betjeman waxed lyrical about it and it contains some early tombs, beautiful Norman archways and even a Saxon doorway. A sculpture of St Gregory from the late Medieval period that somehow survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation and Civil War is a rare thing to see. After our visit to Jane’s local church, we had a look at the exterior of what may well have been Jane’s childhood home – West Stoke Farm. This is something that I need to research further as it would be great to finally pin down a few more details about her life. The more information we can gather about her, the closer we get to her.
Welcome to the brand new Chertsey Museum fashion blog! I’m Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume, and I’ll be discussing some of the most interesting events and projects relating to the nationally significant Olive Matthews Collection of dress housed at Chertsey Museum. As some of you will already know, the Olive Matthews Collection consists of over 6,000 items, around 4,000 of which are articles of dress and accessories dating from c.1600 to the present day.
The project currently taking up much of my attention is our plan to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Olive Matthews Collection Trust. I will be blogging intermittently about this fascinating idea as and when something exciting happens, and you will have a chance to understand the progress of said project from its inception to its completion and beyond.
Back in the Autumn of 2018, the Trustees mentioned to me that they would like to mark this significant anniversary in the collection’s history with something memorable and useful. We came up with a variety of ideas, but eventually it was agreed that we should commission a replica of one of the most important groups of garments housed within the collection. It is a complete wedding ensemble; consisting of a gown, matching petticoat, hat and shoes which was worn by Jane Bailey on the occasion of her marriage to James Wickham on the 9th November 1780 (see photo). The group has survived in incredibly good condition considering that it is over 230 years old. This in itself is remarkable, but its rarity is enhanced by the fact that we know who wore the clothes, when they wore them and where – the marriage took place at Holy Trinity Church, Wonston, Hampshire. What better group could there be to work with from the collection than this one? The concept we had in mind was to use the replicas, along with the right undergarments, wig and accessories, to deliver interpretation sessions for audiences, both at the Museum and at outside venues. These would allow people to see the garments on a real body, understand the way that they were constructed, and worn and, crucially, what they felt like to wear. A living interpreter would also help people to see how someone moved in such clothes and even listen what the clothes might sound like as the wearer walked – all things that are not possible to understand from viewing an original garment on a mannequin inside a glass case. The replica ensemble will bring long-term benefits to the collection by complementing and enhancing our learning about the amazing original garments – an imaginative and useful way of marking a significant event in the collection’s history. Thoughts also turned to the concept of making a film of the replica being worn as the wearer walks down the aisle of Holy Trinity Church, Wonston – an idea which would really bring the garments to life in people’s imagination.
Having secured the support of the Trustees, I researched into the options for the creation of our replicas. It was eventually agreed that Past Pleasures, historical costumiers, would undertake the work. As well as creating replica garments, Past Pleasures also interpret; hiring skilled historical interpreters to wear their clothing and tell the stories of the people they represent. You may well have encountered them as you walk through some of our most important historical landmarks.
Since securing the help of Past Pleasures I have been involved in the in-depth research they have been undertaking in order to make and source the replicas. The first and perhaps most important step was to allow access to the original garments. These were minutely studied, measured and photographed. Patterns were taken so that they could be scaled up to the size of a modern body and the work began to find suitable fabrics and surviving examples of stays and other underpinnings to replicate in order to complete the look. Watch this space to find out about our quest to recreate these very special garments. We will publish a link to each new instalment of the blog as it happens. Come and join us on this fascinating journey!