Costume Society, Costume Society Ambassadors, News  |  November 27, 2015

A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899

I was alerted to the exhibition A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899 now on at the Kelvingrove in Glasgow nearly six months prior to its opening when I conserved a pair of nineteenth century wedding slippers for display.  Finally, a mere day before my exit from the city as fully fledged textile conservator, the exhibition opened just in time for me to take a spin.  Kelvingrove has not played host to an exhibition of historic costume in over two decades and this, coupled with the weight of expectation which accompanies any expansive costume exhibition made for quite the build-up.  What emerged did not disappoint; a broad story of colour from industrial production to symbolic association told through individual garments with local provenance.
 
The exhibition itself carefully untangles and contextualises the dyeing industry in Scotland, particularly centered on the Glasgow and Paisley area during the nineteenth century, dispelling the age old myth that, like the dreich, weather, subdued hues proliferated out of practicality.  The costumes themselves, chromatically arranged through a rainbow palette, make for a striking display through which to tell the story of colour.  Each garment is beautifully mounted, set in front of a full length mirror to encourage greater appreciation with a number of the pieces displayed on rotating platforms to allow a three-hundred and sixty degree viewing experience.  Paintings from the museum’s collection accompany the garments alongside cabinets of jewellery and accessories with each piece selected not just for its vibrant hue but also for what it can tell its audience about time and place.

During the nineteenth century colour spoke not of personal preference but of wealth, status, rank and profession.  Rare and therefore expensive colours were reserved for the upper classes and the aristocracy.  Dyes made from cochineal and kermes were imported at great expense making them highly prized, elevated through their unattainability.  The text panels offer interesting snippets of contextualising information regarding the competing and often contradicting symbolic value of colour; minute pairs of bright red silk slippers are displayed below a caption explaining how Hans Christian Anderson’s iconic fairy tale The Red Shoes popularised the use of red in children’s footwear despite the dark undercurrent of the story.  Red was also the colour chosen by the military, for when combat was at close range it was essential to be able to distinguish friend from foe.  Blue from indigo or woad was relatively cheap and easy to produce, a subtle, un-showy hue designated appropriate for young girls as it was seen to ‘fade into the background’.  Blue is also the colour of fidelity, a newly wed’s trousseaux may be heavy on the colour and in the exhibition a wedding dress dating to 1878 worn by the mother of John Logie Baird is trimmed with blue wax forget-me-nots, a nod to this association.

The first synthetic dyes were introduced during the mid nineteenth century allowing previously unobtainable shades to becoming universally accessible.  Perkin’s Purple, or Mauveine, the first synthetic dye, rocked the world of colour forever, unraveling its elitism to offer fashion a starring role in colour choice for all.  The exhibition comes to a close with a room dedicated to the multi-coloured, from Paisley shawls re-imagined as house coats (post introduction of the bustle) to exquisitely embroidered waistcoats and boldly printed dresses.  Today it is easy to take our unlimited colour palette for granted, we pick and choose from the shops to suit our tastes but the story of colour is bigger, bolder and brighter than we often consider and what better way to tell it than through the nineteenth century wardrobe.

The temporary exhibition A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899 is on at the Kelvingrove in Glasgow until 14th February 2016.

Jamie Robinson, Costume Society Ambassador 2015

  • All images were taken at the exhibition A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899 by Jamie Robinson.
  • All images were taken at the exhibition A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899 by Jamie Robinson.
  • All images were taken at the exhibition A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899 by Jamie Robinson.
  • All images were taken at the exhibition A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899 by Jamie Robinson.
  • All images were taken at the exhibition A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899 by Jamie Robinson.
  • All images were taken at the exhibition A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899 by Jamie Robinson.

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