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On my recent jaunt to Bath I paid my usual visit to the Museum of Costume which is to be found in the basement area of the Assembly Rooms. This place is always a delight to visit: the staff are helpful and knowledgeable and the collection  is magnificent.

Because of its situation-in the heart of the rooms peopled by the fashionable set of 18th century Bath- there are always examples of 18th century/early 19th century costumes on show to satisfy people obsessed with our era, but there are always many other  interesting clothing related exhibits too. This year the exhibits (which are constantly changing to give  the dresses time to rest and to provide different points of interest to frequent visitors) have no examples of costumes  prior to the 18th century on show other than a marvellous exhibit of 17th century gloves,so I missed seeing my favourite 1660s dress made of shimmering silver tissue: but there were special exhibits of The Diana Dresses showing some of the late Princess of Wales’ iconic clothes, which brought back many memories, and as ever, the fascinating Dress of the Year exhibit, a dress chosen by the staff as being most representative of that particular year.

This picture shows the current winner for 2009 by Antonio Baradi. All the previous winners are on show:  including the winner for 2005, by Versace and made famous by Jennifer Lopez

and this beautiful Karl Lagerfeld ensemble which won the accolade in 2008.

The museum was founded in 1963 by the scholar, designer and collector,  Doris Langley Moore

She favoured a phorensic approach to researching fashion history and  encouraged examining real examples of clothing to discover the truth about fashion from the pst. She also encouraged the collecting of modern classics, as well as collecting and preserving clothes from the past. She was friends with Anne Buck and C. Willet Cunningham and their combined scholarship has transformed our understanding of historic clothes.

The 18th and early 19th centuries were well represented in the galleries, and I would like to show you some of the dresses that were on show.

A marvellous sack dress made with silver thread: this would have surely fascinated quietly in the candle-lit assembly rooms of Bath of the 1760 and 70s

A pair of stays circa 1775, the year Jane Austen was born. Worn over a linen sift and made of stout linen.The corset was stiffened with whalebone and a rigid busk of wood or horn or even ivory was inserted into the centre front to keep it rigid. No, thank you…..

A sack back gown of silver-embroidered silk circa 1770

Some more dressed from the 18th century


A court dress of brocaded silk circa 1760-1765.

Though wide skirts of this very rectangular shape had passed out of fashion in the early 1750s the style was retained for court dresses. This is an example of such a dress made of French silk covered with a gold strip and brocaded with coloured silks and chenille thread.

A printed cotton dress of the circa 1795, fashionable at the time Jane Austen was writing her first draft of Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions. A late example of the 18th century style of dress, of the  open robe and petticoat type which was to be superseded by the type of dresses seen below, a one piece dress, put on by  placing it over the head of the wearer, unlike this style, which the wearer put on like a coat, sleeves first.

These are two embroidered cotton muslin dresses, one having tambour work embroidery , both circa 1800

The dress on the left, above,  is made from  plain and undecorated white cotton, which reflects a shot lived fashion for severe plainness in dress in England dating from around 1800. Cotton, grown in America was imported into England and produced in mills such as those owned by Samuel Oldknow of Stockport( more on him later in the year!)

This is a stunningly simple dress, circa 1806, made of cotton muslin embroidered with tiny sliced cylinders of white glass which produced  a shimmering effect: marvellous in a candle lit room, don’t you think?

Additional fabric has been pleaded into the centre of the back of the dress to create a small train and to allow the skirt of the dress to drape gently around the legs of the wearer.

These are interesting dresses date from 1815. They are both made of  brown silk gauze with yellow and blue stripes. They are reputed to have been worn by the Misses Percival at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball held in Brussels in  June 1815 immediately prior to the Battle of Waterloo. There is no conclusive evidence to support this claim but  the museum ‘s curator did make the point that long-sleeved dresses were fashionable as evening dresses at the time so they could quite possibly qualify as having been worn at that event. If only they could talk!!

This is a wedding dress from America made at the turn of the 19th century which took my eye…

And because the staff understand that everyone likes to dress up, children’s sporting clothes from the 1880s are available  for all to use…

As are some wonderfully swish-y crinolines and different types of corsets from differing eras. We had great fun trying them out and  watching other people play….

So there it is, my impressions of a trip to the Costume Museum in the summer of 2010. Do go if you ever have the chance, for you will not regret it. And of course you can also visit the Assembly Rooms at the same time. More on those next week ;-)

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