What to wear 1872

As a costume and textiles curator, I have been accused in the past of “just looking at pretty dresses all day”.  Actually, my job is a bit more complicated than that, but yes, sometimes I do spend time looking at pretty dresses.  This beautiful fashion plate from 1872 depicts day dresses.  It is interesting to note that the little girl in the foreground is wearing basically a miniature version of the clothing worn by the adults.

fashion plate, The Young Ladies Journal, 1872


Start the ball rolling

magazine, 1930s

What will the athletes be wearing at the forthcoming Olympic games?  This seems to have created a lot of interest in the case of the womens beach volleyball teams.  This reminded me of an image I once saw in a book of some nineteenth century female holidaymakers.  They were riding camels across the desert in front of the Pyramids – wearing full bustles, hats and corsets.

As the social status of women began to improve towards the end of the nineteenth century, the scope of their activities expanded.  Leisure time increased and sports and travel became popular.  There was no such thing as “sportswear” at the time.  However, women began to develop more practical clothing so that they could engage in some of these new activities.  The white suit pictured below shows the type of simple and practical garment which would have been worn for playing tennis in the 1890s.


A hat would have been worn, probably a straw boater, and some kind of blouse beneath.  It was thought that white was a more practical colour as it would not show perspiration stains so easily as darker shades. 

The jacket does not fit this particular mannequin very well but you can see the tailored shape of the jacket.  The skirt is around ankle length, to allow the wearer to run around a tennis court more easily.

The idea of women wearing trousers was unimaginable at the time.  Fifty years earlier, in the 1850s Amelia Bloomer had proposed loose “Turkish trousers” as clothing for women.  Initially this idea was met with ridicule.  However, by the 1890s the idea of bloomers became a little more acceptable, worn especially for riding bicycles.

Although it was more socially acceptable to wear trousers, many women still opted to cycle in skirts, as is the woman in this advertisement for a bicycle retailer from 1909.  The advert also lampoons the large hats fashionable in the 1900s.  We have a lovely surviving pair of cycling breeches from this period in the Calderdale collections.  They are extra special for us because the buttons say that they were made by a Halifax firm.

ladies cycling breeches, 1890-1910

button detail, ladies cycling breeches, 1890-1910

Another leisure activity which developed around this time for the lucky few who were able to afford it was motoring.  Cars were an expensive luxury item.  Motoring in an open topped vehicle called for a whole new wardrobe to protect car passengers from cold wind, dust and dirt.

This coat, known as a “duster coat”, from around 1910, has survived in fantastic condition.  It is one of a number of items which were used by the wardrobe department of a local theatre group for many years and donated to the museum in the 1960s.

Although it is now in slightly sad condition, this motoring coat is another interesting survival.  It was made by the  “automobile tailors”, Alfred Dunhill and Sons of London in about 1911.

In keeping with the dramatic social and fashionable changes which had occured between 1911 and the 1930s, the next examples of sportswear which we have in the collection are very different.  We have several tennis dresses dating to the 1930s.

The mother of the donor wore them in the 1930s to play at Birdcliffe Tennis Club in Hebden Bridge.  They are all made from a beautiful white silk fabric, each with details in the design to differentiate them from one another.  In the above example you can see the elegant rounded collar and trimming of three black buttons on the neckline.  The design seems incredibly revealing contrasted with the 1890s tennis outfit!

By the 1930s it was also socially acceptable to play tennis with a bare head.  Whilst the first women to play tennis at Wimbledon wore full skirts and hats, in 1922 Suzanne Lenglen caused a stir by appearing in a calf length skirt with short sleeves. 

This dressmaking pattern given away with Roma’s Pictorial in August 1932, encourages readers to “run up” this tennis dress for only four shillings. 

The design is much more practical than some of the clothing worn for sporting activities earlier in the century.  The sleeveless bodice would allow for plenty of freedom of movement, the calf length skirt is both fashionable and practical.  The light cotton fabric would keep the wearer cool on the tennis court. 

There is a big difference between the outfits of the 1890s and the 1930s.  Both are drastically different to the sportswear of today.  But I don’t think there is much difference in contemporary reactions to the first short sleeves at Wimbledon or the skimpiness of modern beach volleyball outfits. 

Diamond Jubilee

Thinking about this year’s celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee reminded me of one of my very favourite objects in the costume and textile collections – this printed cotton day dress from 1953.  The print has a pattern of carriages, orbs and crowns alternating with one of daffodils, shamrocks, thistles and roses, representing the different countries which make up the United Kingdom.

We are also lucky enough to have a dress in the collection which was worn to the Coronation ceremony itself.  Lady Claud David Hamilton wore this beautiful pink satin gown with beaded bodice. 

The design of the dress is deceptively simple.  I love the bust shaping coming from pleats in the centre front, and the pointed shaped seam joining skirt to bodice.  The cut is a little more complex when you look at it closely.

I think the comparison between these two dresses is really interesting.  Although quite different in many ways, they were both purchased specifically for this very special occasion.  The wearer of the pink satin gown was one of around 8000 guests attending the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. The donor of the printed cotton dress bought it so that she could watch the ceremony on television at home.  Out of a British population of around 36 million people, she was one of an estimated 27 million watching the ceremony on television, with an further 11 million listening on the radio.

Coptic tunic…

For me one of the best things about working with historic textile collections is imagining how the people who wore or used the items might have lived, or what they might have looked like.  It is a really immediate way of connecting our lives with those of people who might have lived thousands of years ago. 

childs tunic, Egypt, 4th-8th century


Edith Durham

Roman Catholic married woman of Scutari, watercolour sketch by M. Edith Durham

Mary Edith Durham first visited the Balkan region in 1900, having been prescribed a rest by her doctor.  Having been educated at the Royal Academy, she may have initially been attracted by the rugged landscape and the opportunities to sketch which it presented.  In the following years she revisted the Balkans many times.  She travelled against a complex, and changing, political backdrop.  Conditions were basic.  She took only a local guide, and travelled on horseback, wearing “a waterproof burberry skirt and a Scotch plaid golf cape”.

On her travels Edith Durham made a personal collection of costume and textiles from the region, as well as collecting various items on behalf of British museums, such as the Pitt Rivers.  Durham made her collection between 1900 and 1912.  She donated her collection of textiles to Bankfield Museum in 1935. 

She was often given things as gifts by the people she met on her travels.  More usually she purchased them – in some cases from people impoverished by conflict.  She seems to have quite enjoyed the experience of “shopping” – of the market at Prizren she wrote “The gold embroidery is not to be surpassed anywhere; the tailor shops are a blaze of gorgeous colours and designs.  Had it not been for the difficulties of transport, I should have ruined myself”.

pair of opanke, or sandals, worn by M. Edith Durham

She meticulously collected information about these items, recording details of their acquisition and use.  We still have many of the original labels hand written by Edith herself.

label from pair of socks, written by Edith Durham

This label refers to this pair of socks:

There can be no doubt, that Durham made a significant contribution to our understanding of the history and traditions of the Balkan region.  After having visited Albania in 1908, Edith Durham wrote “I have in fact had an extraordinary glimpse (for it is only a glimpse) of the life of bygone centuries.  I feel as if I must have dreamt it, or be hundreds of years old . . . “

 Very little was known about many of the tribes which Edith Durham encountered.  Behind her collecting was the desire to document examples of disappearing traditional crafts, and to understand the customs of the places she visited.  The collection of textiles forms an important record of traditional craft of the Balkan region, many examples of which may not have survived subsequent political turmoil in the area.

She grew to love the Balkan region, both the landscape and the people.  On her return to England she involved herself in the politics of the region from a humanitarian standpoint, campaigning for the people with whom she was so familiar. 

During the uprisings and wars between 1903 and 1914, Edith distributed aid to refugees, worked in hospitals and campaigned on behalf of the people.  Her forthright opinions led her into conflict with the British Foreign Office – she is apparently immortalised in their card index as “Durham, Miss M.E.: Inadvisability of corresponding with”.  She also worked as a newspaper reporter, reporting for the Manchester Guardian and The Times.

The Edith Durham textiles are a record of her travels through the Balkan region.  The collection represents something of the lives of the people who wore them and made them.  The social and political history of the Balkans are embedded in the collection.  Edith Durham witnessed a period of dramatic social change and political upheaval. 

More items from the collection are currently on display at Bankfield Museum.

embroidered japangi, or cloak, from Albania, M. Edith Durham collection




Embroidered cloak

embroidered cloak, about 1860

One of the strengths of the costume and textile collections cared for by Calderdale museums is British costume from the nineteenth century.  We have more female than male clothing from this period.  This might be because items of womens clothing tend to be attractive objects in themselves, leading people to be more likely to preserve examples.  It could be because women would tend to have bigger wardrobes than men, and so be less likely to wear their clothes out, so that they are less likely to survive the passage of time.  We have more clothing items which would probably have belonged to people who were fairly well off as well.  Again this makes it more likely that the people who wore them would have had more clothing to choose from and so would not need to wear their clothing until it literally wore out.  This is one of the reasons that unfortunately little “working class” clothing of the nineteenth century seems to survive; certainly in the Calderdale museum collections this seems to be the case.

Bright floral motifs and chain stitch executed in a vermicular pattern embellish the edges of this cloak.  The yellow threads pick up the same colour as the bright silk lining, contrasting beautifully with the deep green fabric.  The shape of the cloak flares outwards towards the hem, echoing the wide, crinoline supported skirts fashionable when it was made.

Sweets to the Sweet

Mackintosh’s developed an advertising strategy highlighting the uniqueness and high quality of their toffee.  Mackintosh’s toffee was “Delicious Beyond Description”, the “Purest of the Pure”. 

They used a distinctive red container for Toffee De Luxe, which can be seen held by the ballerina in the picture above.  This image dates to the 1920s.  It is taken from the back of a set of promotional playing cards.

The Mackintosh brand and the name Toffee De Luxe enjoyed such a high reputation that they sparked imitations.  This occurred from the earliest days of the company, leading to them taking out an advert in 1902 to address the problem “the great success which has attended these productions has tempted various Sweet Makers and Sellers to offer to the public feeble imitations of these Toffees under similar names and get-up”.  The advert further urged customers to accept no subsitute, for Mackintosh products “are generally admitted to be the standard of excellence in pure and delectable confectionery”.

The playing cards will be on display at Halifax Visitors Centre and Art Gallery from 28 July 2012.