The Fashion Gallery at the Bankfield Museum

CS Ambassador Eanna Morrison Barrs interviews Elinor Camille-Wood, curator of the Fashion Gallery at Bankfield Museum, Halifax, on exhibition until 24th December 2019.

Tell me about the collection of fashion and textiles at Calderdale Museums .

At Calderdale Museums we have over 17,000 objects in our fashion and textile collection. The collection began when the museum first opened in 1887. The first curator, Henry Ling Roth (1855-1925), wanted to ‘bring the world to Halifax’. We have such a great tradition of textile manufacture here – not only making them, but exporting them around the world – that at one point we were real leaders in this area. Ling Roth wanted to start collecting not only textile pieces, but also how they were made and the stories of people who made them, so our textile collection grew from him. Our second curator, George Reginald Carline (1885-1932), carried on the tradition of Ling Roth and that’s when we got our Egyptian Coptic cloths. From there we have continued to collect items, including some really special pieces. We have quite a lot of early ethnographic collections, we have some Victorian dresses, court dresses, fans, shoes etc. We have a bit of everything you can think of. It’s a really eclectic collection, but a really nice one to work with. 

It sounds like quite a global collection. What were past curators collecting?

In the early years the curators collected things that they were interested in. Henry Ling Roth had done a lot of travelling and he liked to collect a bit of everything. We got a lot of early shoes and shoes from around the world. As the Bankfield Museum’s reputation began to build as a costume and textile museum we got a lot of donations. For example, we have the Edith Durham collection of textiles. Edith Durham (1863-1944) was a women traveller who travelled around the Balkans and Albania and she donated all of her textile collection to us. We also had a donation of Coptic cloths from Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie’s (1853-1942) excavations. Objects have been donated by the local people as well.

Your new exhibition is The Fashion Gallery. How has this exhibition come about?

A number of years ago we had a gallery called ‘The World of Textiles’. It was quite an old-fashioned looking gallery. The cases were inbuilt, it was quite tight for people to get around and it didn’t really show off the items in the collection. In 2014 we got a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant to transform the top floor of the museum (where the ‘The World of Textiles’ was) into a project for the centenary of World War One. When the exhibition closed we thought to ourselves that space had just been opened up, made much lighter and brighter and new cases had been put in. We always wanted to go back to displaying a lot of our textile and costume collections because it is one of our strengths, so when the ‘For King & Country’ exhibition came out of the top floor space that’s when we decided to put fashion back in.

What can visitors expect to see in the exhibition?

What I’ve really tried to do for this exhibition is showcase some of the highlights of the collection so visitors get a flavour of what else there is. There are over 150 items on display, including court dresses from the British and German court and a never before seen Sack Back dress. In the back gallery we focus on clothing that was made in Halifax and the birth of shopping in the local area. At one point Halifax had over 200 dressmakers. There was a real industry of dressmaking here.  We wanted not only to talk about the clothing items themselves, but where they were bought, who made them and how much they cost. Visitors will get a sense of how it used to be, what type of clothing and how beautiful the clothing was from this area. 

I worked with a group of volunteers that have been trying to trace through the census records the people who were making clothes in Halifax. It was important for me to show that the maker of the outfit was just as important as who wore it. It’s such a personal thing to make a garment for someone. In the gallery I’ve put a bodice out and opened it up to show how it’s been constructed and made. That’s proved to be really popular and something I want to do in future exhibitions. I want to show the item as a working document rather than just a pretty bodice.

One of the other items I have put out is a man’s waistcoat. The wearer added in panels in the back, slowly making this waistcoat bigger and bigger. That’s a really nice thing to talk to children about when school groups come in. At that time you didn’t go to Primark to buy a £2 T-shirt and then throw it away. These clothes were hand-made, they were reused and passed down. It those types of stories I want to bring out. It’s not just about the beauty of the object but the story that surrounds it, which is very important.

What is the aim of the exhibition?

The aim of this first exhibition is to tell people that we’re here and that we have this exceptional collection. This collection is for the people of Calderdale. We’re caring for these items for the future and we want people to take great joy and happiness in having all of these beautiful objects on display. This is a gallery and a collection that is continually developing and changing and that’s what we want to show in the exhibition.

Is there a specific time period the exhibition focuses on?

The exhibition spans from ancient Egypt to modern day. We have some really early Coptic cloths and early spindles so we showcase textile techniques such as how these clothes were made, how is cloth made and what is it made into. The exhibition starts off with ancient Egypt then we go into the 18 th  century, the 19 th  century and a small part of the 20 th  century. The collection has very few items from the 1970s onwards. We are very aware that we need to do some contemporary collecting so in future exhibitions we hope to put out some more modern pieces as well.

What kind of contemporary objects would you like to collect?

It’s a big project we need to start on. It would start with looking at the gaps in our collection and focusing on iconic fashion pieces. Our collection is not made up of designers as such, it’s more working peoples clothing and clothing that were made for specific events. It’s not like we have a lot of Dior or McQueen, it’s more about local dressmakers. This is interesting in itself but we need to think about how we can keep the strength of the collection going.

Will this involve more ethnographic research and collecting?

I think it will. Recently I did a ‘Women Travellers’ exhibition that featured a lot of Edith Durham’s items. We had members of the Albanian community in Halifax come forward, including a woman who lives here but is going back to Albania to get her traditional wedding outfit made there. We’d like to display that outfit after she’s married and that’s the kind of thing we’re really excited about. We want to get that local story with the object, that’s really important.

Why was now a good time to open The Fashion Gallery?

I think there is a resurgence of an interest in clothing, clothes-making and textiles. We’ve always been known for it but we haven’t had the opportunity to display it as we have now. We haven’t had our collection digitized so we’re working with volunteers to get it online. We really want people to know what we have and to loan out our collections so we can share them with a wider public.

We’re very conscious that we wanted people to be able to see more of the collection in the exhibition. We have a video wall that has a continual video of additional items that you can’t see in the exhibition and I’m going to be updating that with more. We will be feeding in the digitization project so that it’s continually changing. As you keep coming back you will see new things that we’re discovering.

What limitations or advantages did you come across when curating an exhibition in a historic home?

The building is Edward Akroyd’s (1810-1887) Victorian mansion, which is a Grade II listed building. We tried to keep as much of the historic elements of the building as possible, including large windows that we’ve protected from UV and put covers over. The exhibition is on the top floor and our stores are in the basement but we can’t put in a lift. This makes bringing up clothing and mannequins difficult at times.

However, this is a lovely space to curate. I think visitors can imagine the Victorian dresses on display in the exhibition being worn in that space. When you go into the museum you go up a staircase with a beautifully painted hallway and a receiving room. As a visitor you are already getting a sense of who would have lived here and how grand it would have been. I think when they come upstairs and see some of the grand dresses on display they get a bit more context to them. It’s not a huge jump to imagine them being worn in this space.

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