Category Archives: Costume and Textiles

Object in Focus – Violet Dix’s Trunk

In 1973, a leather trunk was donated to Saffron Walden Museum, containing the belongings of a girl named Violet Dix. Violet died in 1919, aged 10. Her belongings had been packed into a trunk, perhaps by her parents who were too upset to deal with them, and kept, untouched, until her death.

The belongings include clothes, toys, books, schoolwork, letters and material relating to Violet’s death. From these objects we can piece together a picture of Violet and her childhood in Saffron Walden.

School

An embroidered handkerchief from the trunk

Despite her being frequently ill, Violet’s schoolwork and letters show that she was an intelligent girl with a sense of humour. In a note to her mother she wrote “If you want to know where your safety pins are, look where you told me to put them”, suggesting could get away with being cheeky. Violet was at the top of her class at school, and her writing shows skill and imagination. Included in her possessions are some embroidered items, most likely sewn by Violet in needlework class.

Play

All of Violet’s social arrangements were made by letter, so we know that she often had friends to play with her at home, or that she visited others. She liked collecting things, and the trunk contains packs of cigarette cards, pictures of trains and cut-out paper dolls. There are numerous boxes and tins with handmade peg dolls, small toys and brooches.

Clothing

Violet’s clothing includes dresses, petticoats, underwear, scarves, coats and boots. Violet’s dresses are delicate white embroidered cotton, with lace ribbon and trimming. In contrast, her underwear was made to last heavy duty cotton, with large tucks to allow for growth, and her socks are heavily darned – suggesting that her family was thrifty.

Health

School reports and other documents reveal Violet’s poor health. She was absent from school for long periods, suffering from ear trouble, measles and coughs. In 1919, just a few days before she died, Violet wrote in a notebook “I have had a long illness, and I am not well yet. I had to go to London to a great ear specialist. And soon I have to go to his nursing home…I do not want to go”. Four days later, her mother wrote home from London “Violet got through the operation but is very bad today. They will not tell me much”. Violet died the next day.

Death

Poems about Violet’s death, written by her mother, were left in the trunk along with letters of sympathy, in memoriam cards and photographs of Violet’s coffin and grave.

It has been argued that World War One marked a shift in attitudes towards death, from the Victorian fixation with outward expressions of grief to an attitude in which death was shameful and forbidden. The material in Violet’s trunk seems to represent a society on the cusp of this shift. Whilst the photographs of Violet’s coffin and grave are reminiscent of a Victorian reaction, the family’s mourning is carried out more privately, through letters, diary entries and poems.  In contrast to many Victorian mourning cards which use “died” or “departed from life”, the card announcing Violet’s interment states that she “fell asleep”.

Violet Dix’s trunk and its belongings are a fascinating and deeply personal collection. The museum has welcomed several members of the Dix family and friends to view the collection over recent years. In 1996 a book about Violet’s trunk was published locally, and an exhibition staged at the museum, but the collection has not been displayed since. The book, Violet Dix’s Trunk: Childhood in Saffron Walden, 1910 – 1920 by G. Holman, is available in the museum shop.

 

A New Costume Display

Part of our Costume in Context gallery has recently been re-displayed, with six new dresses going on display.

It is important that we regularly re-display the costumes in this gallery, as fabrics can be damaged by light if left on display for too long (this is also why we keep the light levels low in the gallery). The process of changing a display takes longer than you may think, and our Collections Officer, Leah, has spent about six weeks working on the display.

Firstly, Leah searched the database for suitable items. She wanted to display dresses from a wide time-span to show how fashion changed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She chose six dresses, the earliest from the 1820s, and the most recent from the 1970s. Once she had chosen the dresses, Leah carefully inspected their condition to make sure they were safe to be mounted and displayed.

The prepared costumes wait in the textile store to be put on display

The next step was to prepare the mannequins. We cannot fit the dresses to our mannequins because we don’t want to put pins in the costume or create creases and folds, so instead we fit the mannequins to the dresses. Leah adjusted each mannequin to the correct height, and then created the correct shape using wadding and acid-free tissue, with a layer of Tyvek or cotton jersey to create a smooth finish. This creates a realistic shape, and ensures the dress is fully supported whilst on display. Leah then carefully steamed each dress to remove  any creases.

The next step was to research the dresses and create labels. The labels include information about the particular dress – such as who wore it – but also contextual information about fashion trends at the time.

Leah then de-installed the existing display. She carefully removed the dresses from their mannequins  and stored them in boxes, which were double-bagged and put into the freezer for two weeks to kill any insects that may have found their way into the costumes. Some insects, such as moths, can eat costume and textiles, causing permanent damage. After two weeks, the costume will be slowly defrosted and stored back in the museum’s textile store.

A dress is tweaked to get the arrangement of the train just right

Finally, Leah thoroughly cleaned the display case before installing each mannequin. Many detailed discussions were had about positioning, and hours of adjusting and tweaking took place to make sure each costume looked just right! Then the labels were added, and the display was finally ready!

Why not come along and admire the new display? It features a silk dress from the 1820s; a day dress from the 1860s; a stunning black mourning dress from the 1880s; a sheer crepe day dress from the 1920s; a wartime wedding dress from the 1940s; and a bohemian floral dress from the 1970s. Discover how fashion changed, adapted and came almost full circle in 150 years.

You can find out more about our Costume and Textiles collection here, or contact Leah if you have any questions.

Abolition reticule

This reticule is a beautiful but very delicate object. It is made from unlined pale pink silk with a drawstring at the top. On one side, the image of a seated male slave with his two children has been painted in black. On the reverse, there is a poem entitled ‘The Slaves’ Address to British Ladies’, which reads:

Mothers of the fair and brave
Heavy is the debt you owe
For the sufferings of the slave
Thro’ an age of pain and woe. 

Shall your sons with freedom blest
Be the oppressors of our race
As I plead, each noble breast
Kindles at the foul disgrace.

Torn from Afric’s sunny plains
By your fathers’ cruelty
We have groaned in heavy chains
We have pined in misery.

But a brighter day is near
Blessings by your justice given
Faithful wives & children dear
And the hope of Joy in Heaven. 

We shall bless your holy zeal
In our lisping girls & boys
For we have a heart to feel
All a parent’s anxious joys. 

We shall see the harvests wave
And the sweets of science know
Freemen – at the name of Slave
Shall our souls indignant glow.

 
 

The reticule was made in the 1820s by a female campaign group, to raise funds and awareness for the anti-slavery movement. Although Britain officially ended its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery continued in the British Empire and in 1823, William Wilberforce formed the Anti-Slavery Society to campaign for the end of slavery in the colonies. Whilst women were allowed to join the society, they could not form part of its leadership, so a group of women in West Bromwich formed their own group, later called the Female Society for Birmingham. Other groups formed across the country and by 1831, there were 73 female organisations campaigning for the immediate and full abolition of slavery

Many of these groups produced objects such as bags, jewellery, prints and pin cushions, decorated with abolitionist emblems, images and text, which were sold or distributed as part of their campaigns. Silk bags and reticules like the one in our collection were filled with campaign pamphlets and newspaper cuttings and distributed to prominent people, including King George IV and Princess Victoria, as well as to other women’s anti-slavery societies.

It is very likely that this reticule was made by the Female Society for Birmingham. It is similar to reticules made by the society in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum of London Docklands, the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington DC. However, another example matching this particular design has yet to be found.

The reticule is an important part of the Quaker history of Saffron Walden, which was home to some prominent Quaker families such as the Gibsons, Tukes and Frys during the nineteenth century. The abolition movement in Britain was established by the Quakers, who believe that all people are created equal (and therefore one person cannot be owned by another). 

Sadly, the reticule is in a fragile condition and cannot be handled or displayed. We are currently fundraising for conservation work to stabilise the reticule, enabling us to display it in the museum and share its fascinating history. If you would be interested in donating to the fund, please contact us

Update, August 2017: We have received a grant from the Daphne Bullard, Kathy Callow and Elizabeth Hammond Award, as well as donations from the Saffron Walden Quaker Meeting, Saffron Walden Museum Society and a private individual towards this project. We now have enough funding to conserve our reticule and we hope to complete this work in the autumn. 

Elaborate Edwardian Hats

Each month, we’ll be revealing the history of a different fashion accessory in the museum’s collections, to complement our new exhibition Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories. This month we look at the Edwardian fashion for highly decorative hats.

When we think of fashionable Edwardian women, most of us picture an elaborate, wide-brimmed hat. In the Edwardian period, hats were a fundamental part of an outfit and they were used to exaggerate a wearer’s shape. The hourglass shape popular in the Victorian period had fallen out of fashion and it was replaced by an “S-shape” silhouette, where the hips were thrust backwards and the chest forwards. To exaggerate this shape further, wide hats were positioned to stick out over the face. By 1911, hat brims were wider than the shoulders and there are stories of 18 inch hat pins being needed to secure these creations to the hair!

Edwardian hats were not only large, but they were also extremely decorative. Ribbons, tulle, and fake flowers were popular ways of embellishing hats, but the most favoured decoration was feathers. The market for feathers was vast: in London, one merchant alone recorded more than 1 million heron and egret skins being traded between 1897 and 1911. In 1911, 41,000 hummingbird skins were sold in London. Bird species were under significant threat of extinction because of this fashion for feathers.

Daisy, Countess of Warwick, owner of Easton Lodge near Dunmow

It was under these circumstances that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was established. The Plumage League had been set up in 1889 to try to ban the trading and use of feathers and 15 years later, in 1904, through a Royal Charter granted by Edward VII, it became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. However, a Royal Charter did little to slow the trend for feathered hats, and it was only in 1922 that the import of rare and endangered birds and feathers was banned. By this time, fashions had changed and feathers were no longer held in such esteem.  

You can see Edwardian fashion accessories on display in our current exhibition, Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories, open until 30 July 2017. 

Victorian fire-screens

Each month, we’ll be revealing the history of a different fashion accessory in the museum’s collections, to complement our new exhibition Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories. This month: Victorian fire-screens!

This beautiful hand-held fire screen (above) is one of the star items in the Victorian section of Completing the Look. Up until the late 1800s, most homes were heated by open coal fires – there was no double-glazing, insulation or central heating as we have today! Close to the fire, the heat could be intense so women used fire screens to protect themselves. Elegant, wealthy ladies were expected to have pale, delicate skin so they used fire screens to prevent their cheeks from becoming flushed. The screens also stopped their wax-based make-up from melting in the heat!

An embroidered fire-screen from the museum’s collection

Fire-screens became an important piece in the Victorian parlour. They were hand-made, often from painted papier-mache or from metal with an embroidered design. They were used to show off the needlework or artistic skills of a woman. Both sewing and painting were seen as very desirable attributes for a middle or upper class woman and they signified that a woman had plenty of leisure time, another marker of social class. Fire screens could also be mounted on slender wooden poles and placed on the mantelpiece as decorative items.

‘La Toilette’ by Francois Boucher

Fire screens were used from the 1700s, as shown in the painting ‘La Toilette’ by Francois Boucher (1742), where a fire screen can be seen on the floor in the bottom left hand corner. However, they became especially popular in the 1800s, with mostly hand-held screens being used in the early part of the century, and mounted standing screens being used in the later part of the century.

It has been suggested that women used the ‘language of the fan’ whilst holding their fire screens.  Unspoken communication could be made by the way a fan or fire screen was held: holding the screen to the right cheek meant “yes”; to the left cheek meant “no”; and holding the screen in the left hand meant a woman wished to speak with you.

You can find out more about the language of the fan, and see our beautiful Victorian fire screen, in Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories, open until 30 July 2017.