An inside history of fashion

RACHEL BANHAM The stitching is intricate and the aged fabric flawless. This ivory wedding dress is close to 150 years old yet, with its silk satin, lace and exquisite hand-worked buttons, it still radiates a timeless beauty.


The stitching is intricate and the aged fabric flawless. This ivory wedding dress is close to 150 years old yet, with its silk satin, lace and exquisite hand-worked buttons, it still radiates a timeless beauty.

The dress is displayed to show the inside of its bodice with the boning and padding, and it's just one garment featured in the Concept to Construction, An Inside Story of Costume exhibition (until March 31, 2005).

The collection at Carrow House Costume and Textile Study Centre in King Street amply demonstrates how women have done their best to enhance their figures throughout the ages. And it proves that when pop star Madonna showed us all her penchant for corsets, she was just demonstrating how fashion has gone full circle.

Women have always striven for more shapely chests, waists and bottoms. And this exhibition – with its array of corsets, bustles and even a wadding filled 'bum roll' dating from 1820 – proves it.

Museum conservators Pippa Thorne and Lynda Wix have cared for these garments – and thousands of others – for many years.

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Yet their long service has not diminished their passion for fashion, and they are rightly proud of the current display.

“It was quite difficult to decide what to put on show – it's such a large collection – but the bottom line was that we needed to tell the story. And you don't need to be an enthusiast of needlework to enjoy the exhibition,” Pippa said.

“This is showing what happens underneath the garments. And it's fairly unusual to see what happens inside.”

She demonstrates what she means. Encased in a glass cabinet is an 18th century man's suit in gold silk brocade.

The outer fabric is rolled back to reveal the complex construction of unspun wool, buckram and woven horsehair used to achieve the fashionable stiff skirt. The matching breeches, with front button fastening, were lined with chamois leather to strengthen and support the shape.

Nearby is a 'polonaise' – a fashion of the 1770s that became popular again in the 1800s. It meant skirts had strings attached so the ladies who wore them could easily raise the skirt to walk or play croquet. The exhibition includes a long skirt with strings from 1859.

Both Pippa and Lynda have been keen to show how the garments were put together from scratch. So there is a section of the display that shows the concept of a dress to the construction.

A line drawing is done first, followed by a detailed drawing showing the garment's seamlines and details. Then a basic design is made up in muslin – known as the toile – so adjustments can be made before the pattern is committed to the precious fabric. The exhibition's example is a satin evening dress from the 1930s, complete with toile.

The 'Inside Story' also includes details on the role of the tailor, with a huge pair of 19th century shears that would have been bolted to the tailoring bench in their heyday, because of their weight.

There are samples of all types of stitching too. An intricate sewing sampler from 1899 features alongside a rolled hem on a ladies scarf from the 1920s and arrowhead/sprats head formations on a woman's skirt from 1952.

A 'crimper' with rollers was used to give a good finish to frills in the 18th century. There's a pinking block and tools from around the same time, as well as a late 19th century pinking machine – all used to stop material fraying.

A 'Spencer' jacket from 1815 to 1820 shows how 'piping' was used to great effect.

Such garments are all the more amazing considering what people had to work with. A range of sewing machines, including one that dates back to 1853, are eye-catching to look at in the comfort of Carrow House, but fill the visitor with admiration for anyone who used them more than a century ago.

Work boxes, in which thread and needles were kept, are a pretty addition to the exhibition and include a straw-work reed box, dating from 1800-15. Straw-work was often done by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars, and the straw was dipped in different strengths of tea to give it a range of colours.

The collection at the costume and textile study centre has been growing for some 150 years. It ranges from the historic items on show at the moment, to original clothes from the 1960s and 1970s. And there is a library with some 4000 books on everything from natural craft to costume.

Visitors to the study centre are always welcome – by appointment only – and Pippa and Lynda are happy to bring out the relevant items for individual research.

Still new additions are brought in by members of public all the time and the conservators never lose the joy of receiving a special find.

“It's still very exciting when you come across items. Every month we have things coming in and we still get real surprises,” said Pippa. “We continue to build up the collection for the 21st century because it's a living museum.”

It is also a trip into fashion's past that gives us a greater appreciation of the present – and huge admiration for the craftsmanship of times gone by.

t Concept to Construction: An Inside Story of Costume is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 3.30pm.Entry is free, but visits must be arranged in advance. To book an appointment to see the exhibition, or to order tickets for a talk or event, call 01603 223870.


t February 10, 2pm: Needlework tools and equipment. A talk by Lynda Wix on the history of needlework tools and equipment and a chance to view items from the museum's collection.

t March 9, 2pm: Sewing techniques old and new. Nikki Lutkin talks about construction and finishing techniques and how methods have changed, with samples.

t April 20, 2pm: Looking at buttons. Polly Plowman will show buttons from her private collection and there will be chance to see examples of buttons on costume from the collection at Carrow.

t May 11 – Make do and mend – an open forum to record memories.

t June 8 – Helen Hoyte speaks about costume design for amateur theatre

t July 13 – Geoffrey Squires speaks from Doublet and Hose to Coat and Breeches, 1400-1750.

t August 10 – Pippa Thorne takes up the 'undercover story' – what lies beneath the gown?

t September 14 – Fashion drawing, details to be confirmed.

t October 19 – Fashion dolls from Strangers' Hall for the doll maker, doll collector and anyone else interested.

t October 26 – Making and colouring paper dolls, a children's half-term event.

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