Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  December 3, 2017

High Days and Holidays at Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum

CS Ambassador Araminta Pain offers a glowing retrospective review of Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum’s annual exhibition ‘High Days and Holidays’ shown at the museum from 16th May to 29th September 2017

Araminta Pain   

This year Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum’s annual exhibition focuses on holiday and leisure wear from the Edwardian period to the present day. The exhibition showcases a variety of objects from their archive set around a central theme. The museum has three large cases which divide the exhibition into three parts: travel wear, beach and leisure wear and evening and entertainment. 


The first case looks at travel wear, with garments ranging from the Victorian period through to the 1970s. The accompanying text discusses how clothes for transit changed over the years from more formal dress, to that which was comfortable for long journeys, for example, the growing popularity of the motorcar in the 1920s catalysed a shift to more loosely fitting garments. The outfit selected to represent this period (pictured) was particularly striking with a navy coat clearly of Middle -Eastern influence and colourful embroidery. The caption in the catalogue informs us that the embroidery could have been Palestinian and bought on a previous holiday abroad.


The second case is much larger and split into two halves; the first, clothes worn for leisure while on holidays, exploring the changing styles of beach and swimwear. The second half showcases pieces for evening events and parties. There were several good examples of 1950s daywear, including a Horrockses dress and four piece set of skirt, knickers, boned strapless top and jacket/shirt in cool floral printed cotton c.1954. I could imagine it being worn by a young woman on a day trip to the seaside.


In the other half of the case are some stunning examples of evening glamour; evidence that dressing for dinner was a much bigger affair in the past. Two standout pieces are an 1878 gown with a sumptuous bustle, clearly a piece to show status, with intricate pleating and ruffles. The catalogue informs us that this level of detail in dress became more popular at this time due to greater access to sewing machines. The other stand out piece for me was a bronze silk satin Paul Poiret style dress dated 1910, with an exceptionally tiny waist. Another beautiful outfit was a 1925 ensemble intended for visiting the Opera, a sparkling lime green dress and plush fur coat projecting notions of wealth and luxury for an important lady of society! Modern dinner dress is, by comparison, nowhere near as flamboyant: represented in the exhibition in 1990s formal eveningwear and early 21st century cruise wear.


The third case is devoted to clothes suitable for entertaining; be that afternoon tea, a dinner party or formal soiree. Standout pieces were an 1840s cotton dress, with exquisitely precise pleating to the v-shaped neckline, piped waist seam and cartridge pleating. This is perhaps the most understated piece in the case, but it stands out for its technical detail. By contrast there are plenty of luxurious beaded creations, including a splendid 1920s Art Deco cocktail dress with gold satiny shawl, oozing sensual decadence. Another garment in this case has a royal connection; a black velvet and sequin gown (c.1900) worn by Marie Corelli, the Prince of Wales’ (Edward VII’s) best-loved author.


The link between travel and clothes is again demonstrated in this final case of clothes worn for the most important occasions. This was communicated rather innovatively through the last object in the exhibition. A gold and cream 1886 dress constructed in two parts of bodice and skirt- a new invention at the time, making it easier to pack than a full dress for travel to a country house dinner. It showcased how fashion for festivities has always been designed with frivolity and function in mind. 


To conclude, a clever exhibition that showcases some lovely examples of fashions through the ages from high fashion to the everyday reflecting how travel, tastes and activities have changed and developed simultaneously. 

  • Detail of Embroidered 1920s Coat © Araminta Pain
  • 1950s Horrockses Dress and Floral Suit © Araminta Pain
  • Edwardian Bathing Suit © Araminta Pain
  • Victorian Evening Gown © Araminta Pain
  • Pleated Bodice on 1840s Tea Dress © Araminta Pain
  • 1920s Art Deco Style Cocktail Dress © Araminta Pain
  • Paul Poiret Inspired Dress © Araminta Pain