Behind Scenes Tour of Worthing Museum Costume Collection

By Ed Sexton
a cream jacket with black embroidery

White jacket with blackwork embroidery from the 17th century.

Ed Sexton went on a behind-the-scenes tour of Worthing Museum and Art Gallery's costume collection, guided by collections curator Gerry Connolly.

With a shoe collection to rival Imelda Marcos and a wardrobe that could comfortably sleep a family of four, I was delighted when I was sent to explore the Worthing Museum and Art Gallery’s costume collection.

The Sussex-based museum is home to a vast collection of more than 30,000 pieces of costume and textile dating back to the 17th century, as well as jewellery, accessories and magazines. And with the party season drawing near, I was hoping I might get a bit of inspiration from fashions' past.

The collections curator Gerry Connolly took me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the storeroom, which is an absolute treasure trove for any dedicated fashion fan.

Aisles upon aisles of boxes piled to the ceiling, vast hanging rails and filing cabinets full of magazines greeted me as we entered the storeroom and Gerry explained some of the background to the collection and how it was accumulated.

“The collection begins in the 1700s and the main stages are the 19th and 20th centuries; we have homemade and altered pieces, high street pieces right through to couture fashion."

“We also have a lot of ephemera and magazines and a huge accessories collection of shoes, bags, fans, parasols and jewellery from every class, which is what makes the collection so diverse and unique.”

mannequins wearing wedding outfits

A display of wedding outfits from the 20th century.

Just glancing at some of the boxes in the collection, I noticed paper dresses from the 1960s, military uniforms, a Hamnett gown and clothing going back to the 1700.

“The collection is unique as it is not perfect," explained Gerry. "Most collections will only accept pieces that are perfect but we have pieces that are homemade – a lot of museums won’t touch homemade 20th century clothes. The collection looks more at the clothing of real people - the average person on the street”

“Two curators built up the bulk of the collection in the 1950s and 1960s. Many pieces came from other museums when museums in the area chose to specialise in certain areas. Worthing gave away its natural history collection and took in costume and textile collections from other locations.”

a brightly coloured quilt

An intricately embroidered quilt to mark the jubilee of Queen Victoria.

The museum now works hard to try and get the history behind each garment donated to the collection, whether it's photos of the garment being worn or some background on the owner, explained the curator.

“The problem with many of the garments donated in the past is that we don’t have the associated history that goes with them, no photographs of people wearing them or the social history that came with them,” he added.

The museum's collection of women’s magazines and patterns helps to give some context to the pieces in the collection, with images of models wearing the different styles. I had the chance to flick through some magazines from the 1920s which instructed the reader how to knock up the fashionable styles of the era alongside some very distracting short stories and problem pages.

The majority of the collection is women’s fashion. “Women hold onto things from a sentimental point of view," explained Gerry. "Men’s fashion tends to alter less, so the clothes become very worn and children’s clothes tend to be handed down to other family members until they are worn out."

“We now collect any history that we can that goes with the garment, even if it is just how the person came by it so that we can tell people some of the history behind the garment.”

magazines on a table

Some of the museum's collections of vintage fashion magazines

Hidden gems in the museum's collection include a beautiful 17th century blackwork jacket and an intricately embroidered Queen Victoria Jubilee Quilt, which I was lucky enough to see.

“It’s very rare to find a jacket this old in such good condition and in its complete form, but sadly we don’t know anything about its history. There is no background to the quilt accept that it was made in 1888 and is covered with images associated with the Victorian period and the industrial revolution,” said Gerry, who is leading his team in the mammoth task of carrying out an inventory on the collection, checking that each piece is being carefully stored.

"There are around 30,000 pieces in the collection – we are not 100% sure of the number and are in the process of carrying out an inventory. When pieces were originally submitted they might have been listed as one garment even though they came in three individual parts."

“We don’t do anything to the pieces that are donated - they go into the exhibition just as they are. Everything is packed in acid-free tissue paper, and we constantly monitor the environment in the store area to make sure that everything is preserved for as long as possible,” he explained

“We have pieces that are not in the best condition but are still very valuable for research purposes, and universities in London and the south are always coming in to use the collection.”

a heel less stiletto

A heel-less stiletto from the 1960s

The permanent displays in the museum trace the development of clothing in the 20th century, with designs and styles that seemed very familiar. In particular, the wedding display from the 1970s seemed like an uncanny re-enactment of my parents' own wedding photos, complete with dodgy haircuts.

Vast displays of accessories show how styles have changed and include some rare fashion moments including a heel-less stiletto, which I feel even the most seasoned of models would find a challenge to walk in.

Gerry talked me through his favourite piece in the permanent display that would have caused its wearers a multitude of problems when it was the must-have fashion garment of the day.

“My favourite pieces in the collection are the crinolines - just for the sheer construction," he admitted. "There are also lovely stories written at the time about the embarrassment of getting in and out of carriages and the danger of high winds."

“You can really see the progressions in the clothing of this century. During the Edwardian exhibition we had pieces on display that with some altering would have been wearable today – that is not something you can say about the crinoline.”

a brown Victorian dress

A Victorian crinoline dress

The collection offers a fascinating insight into how fashions have changed through the centuries and, despite the temptation, none of the pieces managed to make their way into my bag.

The 20th century pieces are easy to identify with and many visitors could have similar ones lurking in their wardrobes. The collection shows how important these everyday fashions are to people and how much they have changed.

The handmade and altered garments in the collection give it a very personal touch, as someone would have put a lot of time and effort into making a unique piece, and the collection of personal histories with the garments seem certain to add to their social and historical value.

Visit www.worthing.gov.uk

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