Uncovering the way we wore

Emma LeeThis summer the Norwich Costume and Textile Association is marking its 20th anniversary with a series of vintage fashion exhibitions at the Assembly House. With everything from rib-crushing whalebone corsets to fairytale wedding dresses going on display, it promises to be a fascinating insight into the way we wore. EMMA LEE has had a sneak preview.Emma Lee

Norwich wouldn't be the fine city it is today if it wasn't for the textile and shoe industries.

Between the 12th and 18th centuries, the trade helped it prosper to the point where it was once England's second city, and its exports, such as the Norwich Shawls, made the city famous way beyond our shores.

And while the industry declined, it left a lasting legacy in the many stunning buildings which still impress today.

City life was also enriched culturally, architecturally and linguistically by the 'Strangers' - the people who came to Norwich from the Low Countries, adding their expertise to the trade.

The past is also reflected in the city's internationally famous costume and textile collection of more than 20,000 items dating from the 16th century to the present day.

In 1989, the Costume and Textile Association was founded to support the work of Norfolk Museums Service to promote the archive, stored at Carrow House, educate the public about the history of costumes and textiles and Norwich's role within it, and to keep skills and traditions associated with the trade alive.

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Living history events tell the stories of local folk who worked in the rag and shoe trades, and talks and workshops are held regularly at Norwich Castle Museum.

And vintage clothes are given a new lease of life on the catwalk at fashion shows.

Twenty years on, the association's membership has grown to around 450. And to celebrate the milestone anniversary

a series of fascinating fashion exhibitions are being held at the Oliver Messel

Gallery at the Assembly House in Norwich.

The first, which opens today, May 5, fittingly starts with the foundations. Revealing Costume 1880 to 1960 shows how underwear styles changed dramatically in less than a century - from rib-crushing whalebone corsets to bloomers, liberty bodices and bras.

'We've got a dress for each decade and the underwear that goes with it,'

explains association chairman Vivienne Weeks.

'Everything is borrowed either from our members or from our own private handling collection.'

Women's fashion changed beyond recognition in just a few decades. In Edwardian times, movement would have been restricted by up to 10 layers of clothing, including the dreaded corset and petticoats.

'But when the 1920s came along, the hemlines shortened and everyone thought the girls were going to catch pneumonia,' Vivienne says.

The years between the first and second world wars were optimistic times, which was reflected in what we wore.

'The silver screen had a big influence on what people wore,' explains Vivienne. However, rationing meant that frivolity was replaced by functionality following the outbreak of war.

Glamour made a welcome return in the 1950s, as did the womanly silhouette. 'If the hips weren't big enough they'd put panels in the skirts to make them bigger,' Vivienne adds. And a new fabric arrived - nylon. 'Nobody knew about the static, but it held its colour.'

As a post-script to the exhibition a corset made by a contemporary Norfolk designer brings it full circle. However, this one is definitely meant to be worn as outerwear.

The exhibitions will change every fortnight until the end of August. Fairytale wedding dresses, Norwich shoes, Victorian costume and hats

will go on show, before the celebrations end on a glamorous note with evening dresses dating from 1950 to the present day.

Speaking to Vivienne, it's clear she truly has a passion for fashion.

'I've always liked fashion,' she says.

'I came to the Costume and Textile Association about eight or nine years

ago and the rest is history. Little did I dream I would end up as chair.'

Is there a particular item of clothing that's her weakness?

'Hats. I can't pass a hat,' she laughs.


t May 5-16. Revealing Costume 1880 to 1960 shows how radically underwear fashions changed in the space of 80 years.

t May 18-30: Children's Fashion Revealed.

t June 1-13: The Victorians and Edwardians Revealed.

t June 15-27: Revealed Headwear and Hats.

t June 29-July 11: Revealing the Norwich Shoe.

t July 13-25: Wedding Dresses Revealed.

t July 27-August 5: Revealing Travel and Leisure.

t August 10-29: Revealing the Glitz and Glamour 1950 to Millennium.

All the exhibitions, at the Oliver Messel Gallery at the Assembly House in Norwich, are open from 10am-4pm, Monday to Saturday (except bank holiday Monday, May 25). Admission is free thanks to a grant from the Town Close Estate Charity.

A number of one-off events are also being held, including a talk by underwear expert Rosemary Hawthorne, aka the Knicker Lady, at the Assembly House, on Saturday, May 9, at 2pm (admission �15), a promenade of Norwich Shawls at Country and Eastern, Bethel Street on June 10 at 7.30pm (�5) and a tribute to singer Katherine Ferrier at the Assembly House on August 7 at 7.30pm (�20).

For the full programme visit www.ctacostume.org.uk