#CSFashionhour, Costume Society  |  December 1, 2015

#CSFashionHour: Costume Inside Out

That mysterious pocket stain, the custom stamp in the costume label, and the bold pattern hidden beneath a plain court dress - the inside of costumes can not only reveal the construction of garments but also indicate the personality, quirks and habits of the wearer.

The exterior of clothes – and arguably underwear – are made to be seen by an audience; a symbol of wealth or style or age or politics. A heavily embroidered ball gown may hint at the occasion and fashion of the day but the patchwork of older material used for lining gives us a glimpse of the wearer, the story of a person rather than a stiff, homogenous ‘historical person’.

A team of costume display specialists have been adoring historical garments in a studio in Camden, poring over every inch of costume designer John Bright’s private museum collection. There are over 7,000 costumes and accessories from the 17th century to the 20th century in The John Bright Historic Costume Collection.

This is not just a museum collection, it is also a reference for designers and staff at John Bright’s costume house Cosprop. The items have informed costumes created for film, TV and theatre productions for the past 50 years, with special attention paid to the interiors.

More than 200 choice items will be revealed to the public via an online museum in autumn 2016. The costumes are currently being mounted and photographed, you can keep up to date with the project via our social media sites @CostumeHeritage

What we present to the outside world follows rigid public tastes, fashions and mores. Much can be deciphered by what is hidden. A couple of 19th century dresses in the collection have included considerable boning along the seams despite having been worn on top of corsets and shaping details that holds the garment straight and creates a radically different body shape.

A 19th century bodice made from a delicate floral patterned 1760s silk brocade can talk to us, tell us how the material was treasured, passed on down through generations.

Turn the garment over and rainbow stripes stretch out, revealing exactly how the fabric was made, the attention of the maker to details, the stripes are almost perfect. It’s fascinating to think of the delicacy of the flowers, the idyllic pastoral scenes shown to the world and the knots, stitches and fierce boning within, it isn’t just the naked body that is covered but the secrets and craftsmanship of the maker.

We spent a lunch break here at Hampshire Street Studios wondering how much of the insides of clothing was for the benefit of the same gender, whether women would reveal their personality through interior designs and details to other women. Pockets, and the discovery of them, has been one of the many delights of handling such a rich collection of historic costumes. Pockets remind us that people have always needed somewhere to ‘put stuff’, they can appear in the most elegant dresses and can suddenly humanise a garment.

The team have all mentioned feeling closer to the wearers by working so closely with the garments.

“I felt really close to this man, I felt a bond with him and with his physical deformity. It brought me very close to a man who has been dead for hundreds of years. With costumes you see the simple needs of people, those things that don’t change through the centuries. The sweat patches, physical needs and having a sweet tooth.”

We are mostly makers and as such focus on recreating the different historical forms, our relationship with the inside of the costumes focuses on grain lines, patterns, construction techniques and finishes. It would be great to hear from other professionals; curators, conservationists, textile specialists, dress historians whose perspectives and expertise can reveal different truths from the inside out.

The John Bright Collection (@CostumeHeritage) will be hosting #CSFashionhour this Friday, 4th December between 1-2pm. Join in on Twitter by using the hashtag, we'll be discussing 'Costume: Inside out'. As part of the discussion we'd love to see the labels in your favourite clothing, please tweet us @costume_society or @CostumeHeritage!

Amy Smith, Cosprop

  • Label detail from a Ballet Russes costume. Image Jon Stokes, © Cosprop Limited
  • 19th century bodice pieces cut from 1760s silk brocade. Image Jon Stokes, © Cosprop Limited
  • Green brocade dress with petticoat circa 1750. Image Jon Stokes, © Cosprop Limited