Textiles in the Archives

I was recently invited to attend a lovely evening hosted by Poppy Szaybo, a textile artist and archivist at the London Metropolitan Archives near Mount Pleasant.

In all the many years I have lived in London, I am ashamed to admit having never visited the Archives before, and was delighted to find such a fantastic resource for historians, researchers and genaeologists, not to mention artists, who often neglect their intellectual stimulus in favour of practicalities of producing new artwork!

The theme of the evening was ‘Fancy costume – the art of dressing up” and the talk was given by Charlotte Hopkins who works for the archive. We were a small group of creative people all with a common interest in textiles and history.

The lecture took a long and sometimes sideways look at the fascinating subject of ‘dressing up’ and it’s traditions in European and English society, from the Pleasure Gardens of Vauxhall to photographs taken by students at the London College of Fashion in the 1970’s.

One of our primeval instincts, completely acceptable in childhood, but modified and subverted in adult life is the need to ‘dress-up’ or take on another transient identity for the pleasure of ‘pretend play’. The escapism and anonymity of dressing up burgeoned in the 17th and 18th centuries, becoming part of upper class social life, and often viewed at the time as a pathway to depraved behaviour. Aristocracy and high society families spent large sums on having beautiful costumes created, and there was a large industry of costume and mask makers in London. The lower and working classes were more inventive in their creations for dressing up opportunities,

The Lord Mayor of London hosted masquerade balls for the children of the professional classes, and no expense was spared in the creation of their children’s costumes.

The London Metropolitan picture archive’s online resource ‘Collage’ allows free access to thousands of the documents and images in the collection, and is a fascinating resource for historians and artists alike. Tiny snippets from historic documents are available to view on request, old newspapers, photographs and illustrations are a rich resource of inspiration and a little window into lives led in another era. 


I loved the tiny catalogues of prices and business cards that had been taken out for us to handle, listing prices for ‘ladies undergarments’ and necessities !

We were lucky enough to be shown into the strong rooms of the archive, deep in the building. 

Long corridors filled with shelves and files, all housed in custom made archival boxes, with one member of staff purely responsible for creating these custom made boxes! The wonderful aroma of ancient documents and slightly musty books pervades the space. What look like really old bound books are stacked on some shelves, but on closer inspection date back only to the 1950’s, maybe the mere fact of them being in this environment has given us a preconception of their antiquity!

London coroner’s court records are stored here, with files containing both the mundane and the macabre details of lives prematurely reaching their end. A sobering view as we peer into the corridors of files. Illustrations of dress design and fashions were displayed for us to see, and I was delighted to find plates of Leon Baskt illustrations amongst the pages of the London Illustrated News from 1913. Radical costumes for the time, unstructured and body hugging in comparison with contemporary fashions.

I could happily return (and probably will!) To explore more of this fantastic free resource, but leave you to explore either through the virtual portal of  ‘Collage‘ or in person, do let me know if you find a treasure!

The Age of Innocence

My recent visit to New York inspired me to revisit Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize winning novel; The Age of Innocence. I first read this story of New York society too many years ago to admit to, and it’s commentary on the vagaries of upper class New York passed me by. It seemed to me, at the time, to be a superficial story of unrequited romance in a classic love triangle of frivolous emotion. My, how outlooks change as we get older!

The subtleties of a fragile new society in the recently established social whirl of 1870’s New York have a certain resonance now, and I find myself comparing todays larger American society with that of Newland Archer and May Welland. Fashion, as always, plays a part in forming opinion across society. Judgements are made based on modes of dress and etiquette, today, just as they were in the 19th century. Jenny Bevan was recently judged and found wanting by some of Hollywood’s elite, for her choice of outfit at the the Oscars ceremony. Rather than conforming to accepted ‘glamorous’ dress code for the ceremony, Ms Bevan chose to homage the Mad Max film for which she so brilliantly designed the costumes. As she said to Hollywood Reporter: ” I really would look ridiculous in a gown. What I was actually wearing at the Oscars was sort of an homage to Mad Max — a kind of biker outfit.”jenny bevanJenny Bevan as part of Marie Claire’s best moments of the 2016 oscars

In Edith Wharton’s New York, the Countess Olenska , on her return to America, is haunted by her infamous appearance at her coming-out ball in black satin, rather than the customary pale colours of innocence. Her return to New York is overshadowed by the scandal of her having left her husband in Europe, ostensibly in search of a divorce; something unheard of in polite New York society. This scandal accompanies her and is emphasised in Wharton’s writing by referencing the bohemian streak to her lifestyle, and commentary on her choice of dress; a shocking ’empire line’ navy dress, worn to the Opera. Her choice of home is also under judgement by the society ladies of New York.

As one gentleman says:” I should really like to take Louisa to see her, if the neighbourhood were not so unpleasant.” Newland is dangerously enchanted by the personal touch of the decor in what Countess Olenska calls her “funny house.” What he saw meanwhile, with the help of the lamp, was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any he had ever known…… the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses.” This bohemian, artistic tendency is Archer’s downfall, and he is drawn into a complicated tug of emotions between accepted genteel etiquette personified by his sweet fiancé, May Welland to whom he sends a daily box of lilies-of-the-valley, and the untouchable temptations of Countess Olenska, to whom he sends yellow roses; ” He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her – there was something too rich, too strong in their fiery beauty”.

yellow roses

I leave it to you to discover the outcome to this story, but as you do so, do enjoy the word pictures painted by Edith Wharton of the restrained opulence of Upper class society and the richness of the’alternative’ lifestyle of Madame Olenska. personally I can just see her wearing this wonderful embroidered coat that I saw yesterday in the V&A museum!

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