Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  February 6, 2017

Springhill House Costume Collection

On a blustery autumn day in September, I was fortunate enough to visit Springhill National Trust House near Magherafelt, Northern Ireland. Springhill was opened for free as part of the European Heritage Open Weekend 2016 and as I’d never visited, myself and a friend decided to check out the house and costume collection. The house was the ancestral seat of the Lenox-Conyngham family, who were originally from Derry. Springhill house is one of the oldest country houses in Ireland having been originally built in the 17th century, with later additions in the 18th to 20th centuries.

While I could wax lyrical on the merits of this wonderful house and its surroundings, the main theme of this blog post is the costume collection that belongs to Springhill House. From my understanding, the costume collection dates from the 17th to mid-20th century and represents the female inhabitants of the house. Most unusually, the female members of the Lenox-Coyngham family appear to have undertaken very few alterations to generations of clothes (or perhaps these items were discarded). In the collection itself, there is everything from robe á l'anglaise to bustle dresses and full-skirted 1950s Dior dresses.

The costume collection is located in the Costume Museum, a purpose built museum, that houses exhibitions of items from the Springhill costume collection. This year’s theme was 'seasons', with clothing arranged either by colour or function dependent on the corresponding time of year (for example, muslin dresses for summer and dark coloured dresses for winter). Whilst this sounds like an unusual and innovative way of displaying a dress collection, the brief accompanying text let down what could have been a very interesting exhibition. The panels displayed some text about the pieces on display with reference to period, maker and material. However, there was no socio-historical references to the ladies whom once owned or wore these dresses whilst living at Springhill house.

  I felt this lack of social history relating to what could be a fantastically interpreted costume collection let down not only myself as a historian but also the average visitor to the museum, who may not have specialised knowledge of dress history. Additionally, several dresses were incorrectly dated when it was clear that the silhouette was wrong for the corresponding year on the exhibition panel. An example of this was a white muslin full-skirted dress with real straw embroidery. This dress was listed as 1870s, when it appeared to me that the dress would have been produced in 1840s before the advent of the crinoline, especially as the dress appears to be supported by voluminous petticoats.

In spite of this, the exhibition was visually impressive and a dark navy crêpe-de-chine crinoline dress was displayed to great effect in a single glass cabinet. Several visitors (myself included) walked round and round the dress to see it from every angle. It is easy to imagine an elegant lady from the Lenox-Coyngham wearing this at a ball or evening event, with everyone envious of her fabulous dress!

There were also some amazing accessories, ranging from 1920s flapper headpieces to Victorian beaded bags that really added to the overall effect of some of the outfits. These small personal details added to the lack of social history surrounding the exhibition items. Indeed, it wasn’t until I toured the house itself I was able to find a black and white picture of a lady wearing the Japanese kimono featured in the exhibition whilst standing on the steps of the house itself! Overall, I think a lack of interpretation meant that the Springhill costume exhibition was not as informative as it should have been. However, the pieces were beautifully and sympathetically displayed and I would definitely visit again in 2017 to see if more socio-historical information was included in a new exhibition.

Rachel Sayers, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016.

  • 1840s Straw and Muslin dress.
  • Detail of Straw and Muslin dress.
  • 1860s Crêpe de Chine dress.
  • Edwardian Silk Japanese Kimono.

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