I love recreating period costumes, particularly corsets and 1950s dresses, but know my limitations. It is always a privilege and a pleasure to meet others who dedicate themselves to this highly skilled area of sewing. Tucked away behind the scenes at Enginuity, one of the ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums, is The Costume Project. The project is overseen by Curatorial Officer for Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge and Jackfield Museums, Gillian Crumpton and Senior Costume Interpreter, Alison Phillips.
I recently spent a delightful afternoon being shown around the sewing workroom, soon realising that my needlework skills fell somewhat short of the high standards set by Alison and her team. Gillian tells me: ‘Alison ran the wardrobe department at Blists Hill [Victorian Town, Shropshire] for over ten years after having studied theatre costume and interpretation at Wimbledon School of Art. We have a historic costume collection as part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum. It all began when our Mantua Gown of 1740s, now too fragile to go on display, was missing a corset and fancy petticoat and Alison was asked to make copies of these.’
The Costume Project at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust has been producing bespoke costume for museums since 2004 and specialises in recreating eighteenth and nineteenth century garments. Gillian explains: ‘There has been informal costume interpretation at Blists Hill Victorian Town since 1973, this developed in the few years following this when twelve sets of costumes were made for staff. At Blists Hill we use both first and third person interpretation and have demonstrators and actors who all have various roles.’
Accuracy is very important, so too is the wearability and usability of costumes worn by the staff at Blists Hill. Before beginning the process of recreating a new costume, extensive research is undertaken which includes referencing historic costume collections, photographs and paintings – many of these sources are to be found within Ironbridge’s own Research Library and also their wider collection. With a commission from an external museum or heritage organisation, the process is much the same but the client is asked to provide the team with any images from their own collection and, if available, an original costume. Other sources referred to in the research stages include: sketches; cartoons; drawings; inventories; receipts; diaries; adverts and any available museum objects that might provide a point of reference.
Ironbridge is an independent museum and as such has to be income generating, to ensure its future survival. The Costume Project provides an income stream for the museum as well as supporting their wider educational aims. A gap in the costume interpretation market was soon identified by the team and other museums gradually began approaching Ironbridge to employ their knowledge and skills. Gillian explains: ‘We were given funding from DCF (Designated Challenge Fund) in 2004 to set-up The Costume Project working initially with two partner museums – Fashion Museum, Bath and The Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Our aims and mission, since 2004, have been to produce bespoke costumes for museums and to make costumes accessible and engaging to the public. All our work is based on original patterns.’
There are three levels of interpretation offered by The Costume Project team:
Reproduction – costume for display, not behind glass, a faithful copy of an original historic textile or a copy from a painting:
- Reconstruction – costume for part of a handling collection and can be worn. It is a copy which retains the look and function of the original costume but is graded to modern sizes and often uses more robust materials and fabrics. Gillian points-out: ‘They [costumes] often have ties down the back to allow easy access; we always advocate ties rather than Velcro which doesn’t last.’;
- Re-invention – costume for handling and wearing but using historic costume as the inspiration to create a modern interpretation that explores key functions of the original designs.
It isn’t just the outer garments that need to be recreated, under garments are just as important too. Gillian is keen to point-out: ‘Getting the basics right are essential in costume interpretation. You can make a beautiful dress from striped silk based on a 1740 painting but unless you have the right underpinnings, a corset, petticoats and a bumroll or panniers it will look limp, flat, lifeless and will be wrong. Underpinnings are the foundations of fashion and help create the fashionable shape. The silhouette of fashion changed using different structures underneath to create the shape. Our specialism focuses on Georgian and Victorian fashion. The structures involve: panniers, pocket panniers, bumrolls, stays, petticoats, crinolines, bustles and corsets.’
One invention that the team are quite rightly proud of is the rucksack corset. This type of corset was first produced for the Fashion Museum, Bath as part of their handling collection but based upon originals in their own collection. The brief behind the invention was to create a corset that could be easily put on and taken off without any help in a designated area of the museum where unsupervised costume wearing activities took place. This corset uses rucksack fabric and rucksack clips, making it durable and lightweight. The fabric and clips are virtually indestructible but were familiar and easy to use meaning that people won’t panic or get stuck in a corset. The Fashion Museum corset was modelled on one from the Victorian era.
The Costume Project has many high-profile clients including: The Fashion Museum in Bath, Powys Castle, Ulster Museums, National Museums of Scotland, Clun Museum, Bishops Castle, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum and Historic Royal Palaces (Kew Palace).
- To find out more about The Costume Project, CLICK HERE;
- To find out more about Ironbridge Gorge Museums, CLICK HERE;
- To find out more about events and activities coming-up at the Ironbridge Gorge Museums, CLICK HERE;
- To organise a visit to Ironbridge and the beautiful Shropshire countryside, CLICK HERE.