Thursday 1 October 2015

Historic Clothing Day at the Weald & Downland Museum

The gridshell building at Weald & Downland

On Sunday I attended the Weald and Downland Museum’s Historic Clothing Day held in the site’s incredible Gridshell building, see right. For those who do not know the Weald and Downland Museum, it is an open air museum with more than 40 buildings that were in danger of destruction, and which have been rebuilt on a 40 acre site. The buildings run from a 14th century flint cottage, reconstructed from archaeological evidence, to an early 20th century “tin” church. In many of these buildings the museum has costumed interpreters and volunteers, and the project that clothed these people was the subject of the last presentation of the day.

The day started with a presentation on Henry VIII’s clothing from Maria Hayward author of, among other works, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII (2007), Rich Apparel: Clothing and the Law in Henry VIII's England (2009), and The 1547 Inventory of King Henry VIII: Volume 2: Textiles and Dress (2012). I am still coming to terms with the proposition that it is possible, to an extent, to “let out” a suit of armour when your waist grows. Although this was done for some of Henry’s armour he had many sets and they show his increase in size from a 34 inch waist as a young man to a 51 inch waist in this last years. Maria showed items other than armour associated with Henry including a hawking glove now in the Ashmolean, and clothes similar to those he would have worn, such as the splendid outfit that belonged to Maurice of Saxony. She noted that by the end of his reign he owned many pairs of glasses. 

The second presentation was from Danae Tankard on Fashionable clothing in late seventeenth century Sussex. Danae looked at the clothing choices and purchases of several middling people in Sussex including Samuel Jeake and his wife of Rye. Jeake was a merchant and a dissenter and his correspondence from London to his wife in the provinces, includes fashion comments, for example on a mantua that was to be drawn with India sprigs, presumably indicating that it was to have a pattern drawn on it for her to embroider. Another person was Edward May (1663-86), his father dying when he was young, the payments for his clothes were made by a trustee Walter Roberts, and there are letters between Roberts and a tailor John Heath. 

After a break Grace Evans, curator of the Chertsey Museum, gave a presentation on 18th and early 19th century items from the Olive Matthews bequest that are now in the museum. Grace discussed how Olive Matthews started as a collector of historical dress as young as aged twelve, using her allowance to purchase from the Caledonian Road Market before the Second World War. Grace showed some of the highlights of the collection including an embroidered man’s night cap of c1600-20, and a 1690s collar of point de neige lace. There was also an open robe of 1734-4 silk that had been remake sometime in the 1750s with the addition of two other silks. Frugal indeed.

There was long break for lunch where we could go around the buildings and see some of the demonstrations as in the photograph to the left where the process of creating linen from flax was being presented by a costumed interpreter.

After lunch Vivienne Richmond author of Clothing the poor in 19th century England, spoke on the subject. She talked about the problems of assessing evidence, she regards the painting that is used for the cover of her book as a romanticised image, and queried to what extent photographs of the ragged children of the time might have been sent up by the photographer. She spoke of the concept of Sunday best (something I remember from my own childhood), and quoted from someone reminiscing that, because they did not have Sunday best clothing, their pious mother had taken them to a church some distance from where they lived so they would not be seen attending church in ragged clothes.

The final presentation of the day came from Barbara Painter, who was the clothing consultant for, and heavily
involved in, the
Historic Clothing Project at Weald and Downland. We were treated to a catwalk display of some the garments worn by the interpreters. The garments are matched to the buildings in which they are to be worn, so the Tudor period clothing is worn in the Bayleaf Farmstead which is displayed as it would have been around 1540. Similarly the West Wittering School is presented as it would have been around 1890.

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