Curator's Choice: Fiona Kerlogue chooses costumes worn by Romanian royals and Transylvanian dancers

By Ben Miller | 01 October 2014

Curator’s Choice: Fiona Kerlogue on a costume worn by Lady Monson, lady-in-waiting to Princess Marie of Edinburgh, at her wedding to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania in 1893, plus more highlights from the Horniman’s new exhibition

A photo of a woman standing next to a colourful historic costume
© Horniman Museum and Gardens
"Several years ago, we were cataloguing the Romanian textiles with Mrs Netcu - a retired curator from Romania who came to London to help us.

She remarked on how very fine this costume was before I discovered its history: it's in pale cream fabric with beautiful gold thread embroidery.

I like it because of its associations with an interesting individual and its place in Romanian-British history.

It led me to explore the whole phenomenon of how Romanian costume was used by the aristocracy to express notions of nationhood as well as Princess Marie’s account of her life, which is fascinating.

The woman who gave it to us had mentioned that King Carol of Romania had given it to the grandmother. One of my volunteers eventually traced back the family history and discovered it had belonged to Lady Augusta.

Lady Augusta Monson was chosen to accompany the young princess Marie, who was only 17, to Europe for her wedding.

Marie later wrote in her autobiography: ‘Lady Monson was no longer young. Mother of three grown up daughters and one grown up son, she was an exceedingly cultivated woman who lived a great deal abroad.

‘Her special love was Italy. She spoke fluent Italian, as well as several other languages; her English was always spiced with foreign words.

‘For this official and none-too-easy mission I think Lady Monson was an excellent choice.’

I wonder about what advice she gave the young bride-to-be, but I think she must have been a kind and sympathetic woman to have been remembered in this way by Queen Marie, as she later became."

A dazzling dance costume from Transylvania (part of Romania from 1919 onwards)

A photo of two colourful costumes
The apron is made of a combination of commercially printed fabric, and plain cream fabric panels heavily embroidered with tube and round glass beads, in floral and bird motifs. The print sections are embellished with silver-coloured beads, metallic thread and sequins© Horniman Museum and Gardens
"The Transylvanian dance costume is a riot of colour. It was given to the Museum in 1985.

It is from Ţara Călatei, formerly known as Kalotaszeg, a region in Transylvania, Romania which was before the First World War part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

When it came to the museum it was given to us as being from Hungary, which suggests that it was collected before 1919, but we cannot be certain. Costumes like this are still worn there today on festive occasions."

A 20th century child’s embroidered jacket

A photo of a classy black and white waistcoat from 19th century Romania
Donated to the Horniman by Baroness Asta Ladenburg. Made of white felt with black embroidery, bobble fastening and a detachable flap collar© Horniman Museum and Gardens
"The child’s jacket came to us from Baroness Asta Ladenburg, who lived in Sussex. It may have been brought back from Romania by her husband, who had business interests there.

It is very similar in style to coats worn by children in the Romanian royal family in the early years of the 20th century."

A 19th century rug from Oltenia

A photo of a colourful red and black rug from Romania featuring a floral-style design
Carpets and rugs from the Oltenia area were much sought after by visitors. Sacheverell Sitwell, who visited in the 1930s, wrote that 'it is to be argued that after Persian and Turkish rugs, Oltenian are the best'© Horniman Museum and Gardens
"The Oltenian carpet was made in the late 19th century but came to us as a gift from the Romanian government in 1957.

It would have been made for a boyar’s mansion - the word boyar referring to a high-ranking aristocrat - and would have been made to hang on the wall or spread on a sofa.

The designs and techniques are throught to derive from the Turkish kilims, as well as those from further afield. It would have been woven on a vertical loom."

Curating the exhibition

A photo of an ancient black dress with white and multicoloured designs on its trim
A 19th century woman’s skirt made of closely pleated coarse black bast cloth. It is decorated with sets of metal studs made of flat strips sewn into rosette shapes – each set contains 28 studs. Below, two zig-zag lines of the same studs frame woollen cross-stitch embroidery in abstract patterns© Horniman Museum and Gardens
"Of course, we have to work very carefully with all the items in our collection. We have conservation and exhibition teams who advise on how the material should be handled, prepare them for display and make the mounts.

I presented them with quite a few challenges: how to display the magnificent but rather large Oltenian rug flat against the back wall of the case, how to support yards of horizontal cloths; dressing mannequins without the use of pins which would damage the cloth with only archive photographs to guide us as to how the costumes would originally have been put on.

Those were probably the most challenging. I discovered a lot during research for the exhibition.

The peasant costume is very decorative, but I realised that this was worn by better-off peasants - farmers - to go to church or for other feast days.

Life was generally quite hard, and so we have supplemented the actual costumes with photographs taken in the countryside.

In these, some of the peasants are barefoot, and you can see how hard they worked. Costume based on folk dress worn by the aristocracy is very finely made and embroidered.

It was interesting to me that even the royal family often chose to reject the Paris fashions worn by other royal families of the day in favour of clothing expressing their nationhood.

Queen Marie, of course, was born British, so for her it was important to show her love for her adopted nation.

I went to Romania to see sheepskin waistcoats being made. I was intrigued to find that they are embroidered by men – who was it who said that men’s hands are too big to do embroidery?

They are quite expensive but can be made to order. I wish I could have afforded to buy one.

It’s always wonderful in the last few days before the opening to see all the research come together and the objects I’ve come to be so familiar with coming out to meet their public, looking spruce and grand.

It’s exciting and satisfying. I don’t have time to feel deflated afterwards. I’ve already started work on next year’s exhibition."

  • Revisiting Romania: Dress and Identity is at the Horniman Museum and Gardens from October 4 2014 – September 6 2015

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a young woman posing in a colourful dress in front of a black background
A second exhibition will open alongside Revisiting Romania: Dress and Identity. Portraits from London features 34 eye-catching images of contemporary Romanians living and working in the capital, by London-based Romanian photographer Ion Paciu© Ion Paciu
A photo of a series of elaborate wooden carvings including a circular clock-style piece
This flask was made in Brașov, Romania. The three wooden cups are 80mm high. Two are maple, the middle one is walnut. They were all were made in Cerbăl, Hunedoara, Romania and decorated with carved, embossed and relief designs of leaves and geometric patterns© Horniman Museum and Gardens
A photo of a small yellow and black antler
A powder horn made of stag's antlers, incised with geometric designs, made during the last quarter of the 19th century© Horniman Museum and Gardens
More Curator's Choices:

A three-metre high outdoor mural of Edward Elgar

Taxidermy and the 19th century bird plume boom

The Happisburgh Hand Axe - the oldest hand axe in North West Europe
Latest comment: >Make a comment
I am looking for some help in trying locate a photograph of a Romanian Vest, requested by Marie Queen of Romania. It was given to a gentleman by the name of Jean Gulesko around 1891. I have possession of the vest and would like to sell it, but really could use a photograph to go with it. Are there any areas that I can check, other than a google search?
This is a very extraordinary vest with beautiful stitching and buttons.
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