Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, Reviews  |  February 20, 2018

Behind the scenes of Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote at Killerton House

By Victoria Haddock

"Many suffragists spend more money on clothes than they can comfortably afford, rather than run the risk of being considered outré, and doing harm to the cause" - Sylvia Pankhurst

The fashion collection at Killerton House, near Exeter, is back on display after a year of behind the scenes care whilst the house's historic lead roof was repaired. This year's exhibition is part of the National Trust's Women and Power programme for 2018, celebrating 100 years of the Representation of the People Act which gave women over 30 with a stake in property or a university education the right to vote.  Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote explores the politicisation of women's fashion during the campaign for women's suffrage and traces the evolution of dress from the 19th to the 21st Century through objects, film and stills.

Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote relates to the other exhibition at Killerton House called Votes for Women? which tells the stories of Gertrude Acland and her niece, Eleanor, two women from the Acland family with very different views on votes for women. Eleanor was a suffragist campaigner in opposition to her Aunt Gertrude who campaigned for the Anti-Suffrage League to prevent women being given the vote. Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote travels through the 20th Century, exploring how events such as the First World War affected fashion, how fashion developed after 1918 and how the women's movement has progressed since the 1920s. The exhibition culminates with the Women's March in January 2017 and the infamous Pussy Hat.

I have been fortunate to be involved with the Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote exhibition from the beginning with Curator Shelley Tobin, Assistant to the Costume Curator Charlotte Eddington and the other Costume collection volunteers. The exhibition began with research into the theme of Women and Power and resulted in certain objects being selected for display that traverse the journey through the campaign for women's suffrage from 1866 until 1928. These items were then condition checked to make sure they were stable enough to be on display for nearly nine months. This process involved examining a garment inside and out to check seams, stitches and material quality. I personally enjoyed this process since it was fascinating to see where garments have had slight alterations over time either to suit changing styles or to fit the wearer.  The next process in putting together this costume exhibition involved mounting the costumes on mannequins. Charlotte created unique mannequins for each item by padding out the mannequin bodies, making universal petticoats and calico arms to fill out the garments and create more stability for display. I am extremely proud of the mannequin I created for the Dior suit which involved a lot of work, including the attachment of legs to a torso!

One of the main garments on display is a bodice and skirt that belonged to Queen Victoria, who was famously against woman's suffrage. Both Charlotte and I found this item strange to mount because of its Royal connections and subconsciously, we even began to speak better around her clothes! This was a tricky mannequin for Charlotte to pad out due to Queen Victoria's large waist but small stature. Mounting costume really brings the wearer of a garment to life as you begin to see their dimensions come together before your eyes. This is one of the main reasons I love fashion history as a person's choice of clothing is extremely personal and seeing them brought back to life is a fantastic experience.

Another highlight of the exhibition is Eleanor Acland's 1905 wedding dress that is on loan from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. It is lovely to see this dress back at Killerton however because of the delicate nature of this dress the decision was made to display it flat. Eleanor's interest in fashion is obvious due to her choice of Parisian couturier, Nicaud, renowned for making dresses for royalty including Queen Alexandra, to make her wedding dress.

Killerton House often involves fashion students from Exeter College in its fashion exhibitions and this year is no different; 130 students and staff from the Foundation Diploma visited Killerton in September to research ideas surrounding the theme of Protest which they used to inform their unique artworks on display within two rooms of the exhibition.

I will be highlighting items from Killerton's costume collection in my articles for the National Trust, including the infamous hobble skirt and the lingerie dress on display in Branded. These can be viewed on the National Trust's My Volunteering website and newsletter.

Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote is on display at Killerton House until Sunday 4 November 2018. The exhibition is free, but normal admission charges apply.

  • The Suffrage Timeline at Killerton as part of Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote, ©National Trust/Malcolm Jarvis
  • Examples of Suffrage Fashion, ©National Trust/Malcolm Jarvis
  • Queen Victoria's Dress on display at Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote, ©Victoria Haddock
  • 1920s Fashion, ©National Trust/Malcolm Jarvis
  • Examples of Exeter College Student's Work, on display at Killerton as part of Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote, ©National