Guest Blog, Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  July 19, 2020

Liberty Garments at Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum: Interview With Julia Fox, Curator

by Alison Alexander, Assistant Curator, Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum.

AA: Can you tell me how the Collection started?

JF: The three founders of the Collection, Peter Clapham, Paula Morel and Annette Kok, met at Dartington Hall, where they were members of the Playgoers Society. This was a dramatic society established by Dorothy Elmhirst. All three had private collections of costume which they had gathered through their work as designers and for research purposes. Annette had collected period garments from the age of 12. The friends decided to combine their individual collections under the name of The Devonshire Collection of Period Costume.

Peter suggested that they should put on a costume parade. Actor friends from the Playgoers could model the clothes. The first parade, held at Oldway Mansion in Paignton in 1967, was a great success and was followed by requests for more. These were mainly put on in National Trust properties. People who had seen the parades started offering other garments. In 1972 the BBC programme ‘Collectors World’ featured the Collection and interviewed Annette. This resulted in many more donations and Annette started to think seriously about conservation.

She realized that the clothes should not be worn, so the parades had to stop and the idea for a museum was born. Premises were found in Totnes and the museum opened to the public in 1974. Later, in 1986, thanks to the support of the late Priscilla and Douglas Mitchell, the museum moved to Bogan House where it is today.  Exhibitions on a different theme have been put on every year since

Of course this year, because of the coronavirus the museum has not been able to open, but a virtual exhibition can be seen on our website.

AA: What is the date range of the clothes and accessories you have?

JF: Our earliest item is a pair of kid gauntleted gloves from c.1650. They are decorated with silver bullion embroidery. Our earliest female garment is a mantua, dated c.1760. A mantua is an open over-gown usually worn with a petticoat and decorated front bodice piece called a stomacher. Our Collection comes almost to the present day.

AA: How do new items come into the Collection?

JF: Donations continue to come in via word of mouth or from visitors. People ring, email or just call in to offer garments We are offered many accessories as well as clothes – jewellery, shoes, bags, shawls, hats and so on. Most of it is for female wear. It is more difficult to find men’s or children’s clothes that have survived, though we do have some fine eighteenth century men’s waistcoats. Women tended to keep or pass on fine garments as the textiles were so valuable.

AA: Do you have a favourite period of dress?

JF: My favourite is the eighteenth century because of the quality of the materials. These were mostly silks until the end of the century when early printed cottons became available. The wide skirts of the period really showed off the silk fabrics. The garments in our Collection are formal, but not court wear.

AA: If we focus on one aspect of the Collection today, what do you want to choose?

JF: Our Liberty garments are very interesting because of their close relationship with the social movements of the time – the Arts and Crafts movement, the Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau. The clothes really show a feeling for how they believed women should dress.

We have several Liberty garments in the Collection. Individual designers were not named – Liberty was the brand name. Many design ideas came from the East. Liberty wanted to go back to the qualities of handcraft and natural dyeing. Weaving came from India and China. In 1884 they started their own costume department headed by the architect E.W.Godwin.

In 1887 Liberty opened a children’s department featuring clothes in the style of Kate Greenway drawings, which were very popular at the time.

AA: Can you tell me about some of the Liberty items in the Collection?

JF:

1.The earliest is a long evening coat from c.1895 in a light weight woven silk in pinks and pale greens. Its style is influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Mediaeval Revival with its stand-up collar and loose, flowing cut. The collar, cuffs and fake bolero are embroidered in Liberty’s trademark style, influenced by Chinese embroidery.

2. We have a child’s blue smocked dress from c.1900 with long sleeves and smocked cuffs, very much in the Kate Greenaway style. The seams are machined but the decoration is done by hand. The silk fabric is an indigo discharge print with the Indian buta pattern showing the ethnic influences on Liberty’s garments (figure 1).

3. Our grey wool coat is also in a typically loose style with a wrap over front held together with large buttons and loops. Its set in sleeves are gathered to make an easy fit. The satin reveres and cuffs have the Liberty embroidery and the points of the collar are weighted down with long tasseled cords again hinting at the mediaeval period (figure 2).

4. Liberty’s new Tudor shop, opened in 1924. They supplied their floor walkers with long mediaeval style dresses in fine silk velvet. We have both a brown one and a purple one (figure 3). They have laid on embroidery, some done with metallic thread. Cords draw the end of the sleeves together at the wrist and a pseudo girdle at higher hip level finishes with a swag down the front. The donor, who gave the dresses, says they were not easy to walk in due to the length. The floorwalkers would stand at the head of the stairs and summon assistants to take customers to their chosen department. Customers could select Liberty fabrics and have them made up to their taste.

5. Liberty made several styles of cloaks, popular with the Aesthetic Movement. We have one in cream wool on a circular yoke, which is embroidered with a heavy twist. The use of this style was not confined to Liberty at this time. In the early twentieth century, Jessie Newbury, who taught embroidery at Glasgow School of Art, demonstrated the same influences.

6. Our star Liberty exhibit is an 1894 wedding dress in lustrous cream pongee (Chinese silk). It has bands of smocking on the neck and yoke and further bands under the bust and on the sleeves. The long, banded sleeves are separate from upper puff sleeves, so the dress could be worn without them. Similarly, the high Edwardian neck and yoke were tacked in and could be removed for more relaxed evening wear. The dress has a mock-mediaeval girdle created by applied embroidery. The elongated back of the dress forms a short train and the frill on the hem acts as weighting.

I am fascinated by Liberty garments. They demonstrate real skills in craft and design in the textile arts, influenced in particular by India and China.

AA: Thank you Julia.

  • A child’s blue smocked dress from c.1900 with long sleeves and smocked cuffs
  • A grey wool coat from c.1900 with a wrap over front held together with large buttons and loops
  • Floor walker Tudor style dress c.1928 in purple velvet
  • Dress coat with fur collar and cuffs c.1920