#CSFashionhour, Costume Society  |  November 4, 2015

#CSFashionHour: Historic Houses

Many dress collections, public and private, are housed in historic buildings in our towns and cities, but the country house approach can differ quite radically from the familiar showcased displays found in museums.

For one thing, country house collections on show to the public often focus on the atmosphere of a family home. Dress then becomes of secondary importance to the rooms, albeit a very personal reminder of a previous occupant. Decor and belongings reflect the personalities and status of the original and subsequent owners through unedited, eclectic interiors and interpretation is left to the imagination. Alternatively, a more controlled approach to presenting the rooms might eliminate decorative objects of a certain period, whether furniture, textiles or dress, in an attempt to recreate a frozen moment in time.  Replica dress, particularly if associated with a popular film or TV series, has often been introduced as a seasonal attraction, and has proved successful in drawing visitors to historic houses.

While practical aspects of displaying dress in a country house can be problematic, there is no doubt that the current thirst for fashion exhibitions has not been slated and that houses with significant collections will be inspired to follow the success of highly publicised fashion exhibitions, creating their own displays while there is demand.

Dress is arguably a very accessible way of adding historical context and atmosphere to the stories houses tell. Organisations like the National Trust have been looking to the addition of historical clothing to room presentations to help to bring houses to life. Sometimes this means simply introducing an object to a dressing room, bedroom, or hall stand. Displays might be as casual as laying a nightdress on a bed. 

Occasionally replicas are installed as part of a temporary project to bring a room or house to life. One project at the National Trust’s Berrington Hall a few years ago gave a group of volunteers the task of producing a wedding gown known only from a photograph.  The display consisted of all the paraphernalia used to prepare for the ceremony. A loop recording of the sounds of ablutions and approaching carriage and horses added to the illusion.

Private houses often hide caches of extraordinary collections, not always on show to the public, Significant examples of dress on or off display may be found in the largest and grandest of buildings like Longleat and Blenheim Palace, or less well known private country houses like Port Eliot, Cornwall, the home of the St Germans family. Local authority run houses such as Lotherton Hall, run by Leeds City Art Galleries take a different approach again. 

Lotherton Hall has been displaying historic and contemporary fashion since 1968. It has gained a reputation for curating innovative displays exploring contemporary fashion and showcasing British designers such as Jean Muir, Bill Gibb and Vivienne Westwood.  High end fashion and pieces of local significance to Leeds and Yorkshire feature in the displays.

Amidst the grandeur of the state rooms, Blenheim Palace has a small display of effects relating to Winston Churchill including his red velvet siren suit and slippers. The National Trust looks after many places associated with well-known historical figures. In these cases, often in a smaller property, a familiar hat or cane might be just enough to evoke the presence of the man or woman in question.  Examples are George Bernard Shaw’s hatstand at Shaw’s Corner, and Ellen Terry’s beetlewing dress worn for her role as Lady Macbeth. These objects become relics of the person, a physical presence, standing in for the ‘famous’ figure. 

The National Trust cares for one of the world's greatest collections of art and historical items. Over a million objects are held at over two hundred historic places. While examples of textiles, dress and accessories can be found in many houses, large dress collections are stored and displayed at Killerton in Devon, Springhill in Northern Ireland and Berrington Hall near Leominster, Herefordshire, which houses the Snowshill costume collection, well known through the books and drawings of Nancy Bradfield. 

While very significant pieces are associated with particular families and houses, the magnificent wedding suit at Ham for instance, dress collections are not always ‘indigenous’ to the properties but form important resources in their own right. Killerton shows an annual fashion exhibition drawing on a wide-ranging collection of around 10,000 objects. We aim to interpret the collection by highlighting a different aspect of dress each year. A partnership project with art and design tutors and students at Exeter College adds another dimension to the displays.

What works best? Should original examples of dress or replicas be displayed? Do theatrical installations take away from the true stories, or enhance rooms  and inspire visitors? When dress is displayed in country houses, what is missing? What is left unsaid? Food for thought. Join me at #CSFashionHour on Friday (1pm GMT on Twitter, see @Costume_Society for more information) and share your views.

Shelley Tobin, National Trust

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I’m a dress historian, curator and author based in Devon. Currently working with two collections, as Curator of Costume for the National Trust, based at Killerton House. I’m a member of the National Trust’s Costume Working Group, advising and sharing best practice, and Assistant Curator specialising in textiles and dress at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter.  I have also acted as Historical Consultant to the Blandford Fashion Museum, Dorset, and served on the executive committee of the U.K. Costume Society in the past. I’ve published, lectured and broadcast on many aspects of the subject. I am particularly interested in the relationship between dress and textile manufacture, and am always seeking new angles on the history of fashion and its interpretation to a wide audience.

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING: (1) Jane Ashelford, The Art of Dress, the National Trust, 1996. (2) Ksynia Marko, Textiles in Trust, the National Trust, 1995. (3) Shelley Tobin, Inside Out: a brief history of underwear, the National Trust, 2000. (4) Shelley Tobin, Marriage a la Mode, the National Trust, 2003. (5) Shelley Tobin, Paulise de Bush: the story of a collection, in Costume no. 33, 1999. (6) Natonal Trust Collections.

  • Image from ‘The Nature of Fashion’ exhibition (2014) at Killerton House, National Trust
  • Image from ‘The Nature of Fashion’ exhibition (2014) at Killerton House, National Trust
  • Banyan (1830), Killerton House, National Trust
  • Image from ‘The Nature of Fashion’ exhibition (2014) at Killerton House, National Trust
  • 1930s gold lame dress. Killerton House, National Trust
  • Image from ‘The Nature of Fashion’ exhibition (2014) at Killerton House, National Trust