Biography of Objects at the Museum of London

Last week our MA History of Dress class was lucky enough to be allowed into the clothing store at the Museum of London, where over 27,000 objects of dress are conserved, catalogued and housed. This was my first experience in a museum store of any sort, so naturally I was very excited. Many of these objects enter the collection as part of a large lot bought at auction, often making it difficult to ascertain who owned it and how and when they wore it. We met one of the dress curators, Beatrice Behlen, who showed us how the key to unlocking the mystery behind the owner can often reside in the most unlikely of places: buttons, soles of shoes and pockets on jackets. Because clothing is something so personal, the 24,000 dresses, suits and shoes collected by the Museum of London, which range in date from the Tudor period to the present day, are more powerful a self portrait, than could be depicted using paint or photography, but only if the owner can be identified!

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Inside the dress store at the Museum of London

We were shown a variety of different garments, including a pair of shoes made and worn during clothing rationing in the Second World War, which had been reinforced with metal studs by the owner, to prevent wear and prolong their life.

One of the most intriguing objects we were shown, and arguably my favourite, was a very small blue leotard, covered with gold spangles, and finished with metallic lace. This rather unusual garment was donated to the museum in 1928, as part of a group of clothing which dated from 1860 to 1875. The task of the curator was to determine why this garment was made and who wore it.

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Leotard in the Museum of London collection

Beatrice explained to us how, by comparing the shape of the leotard, she was able to note similarities between it and costumes worn by famous acrobats in photographs taken at the time, with the distinctive deep-V neckline. This allowed her to give an approximate date to the garment.  However, external sources like photos can only take one so far. The rest of the deducting had to come from closely examining the object itself.

The metal buttons on the leotard where not all the same- they were made by two different designers, as was indicated by the tailors’ names on the surfaces. Some of the buttons came from a tailor called ‘Adolphus,’ on Leadenhall Street, while the others are labeled ‘J.W. Calver, Walthamstow.’ This simple fact alone suggests that the garment was not made professionally, although, of course, buttons may have been changed at a later date after loss or damage.  However, tracing the careers of these two tailors allowed Beatrice to confirm, with slightly more certainty, a date of creation. Aldophus went out of business in 1880, so these buttons must have been in existence before that date, while J.W. Calver only started his company in 1861. He continued working into the 1890s. This, along with comparisons made with the acrobats’ photographs, points to a date in the 1860s.

The silver lace, made of thread plated with a thin coat of silver metal, was comparable to other, much earlier examples of dress in the museum’s collection. This, along with the mismatched buttons, suggested that the leotard was made at home, reusing materials from old clothes. Its very small size indicates that a child wore it, and therefore, it is likely that it was made for (very elaborate!) fancy dress. This appears to be confirmed by the rather unprofessional style of stitching on the garment, particularly on the red rosette, which gives it an altogether homemade appearance.

It is fascinating to imagine the child who wore this costume, perhaps having been inspired by seeing an acrobat, or wanting to copy a popular celebrity of the day. This is truly an example of clothing’s ability to share the biography of its wearer. Maybe one day, someone will look through my old dressing up box, trying to piece together the story behind my childhood costumes, which, much like this leotard, were made for me by an equally doting, and equally talented, mother.

Sources:

Beatrice Behlen, ‘Acrobatic Mystery… belatedly continued,’ Museum of London blog, 7 February, 2012 http://blog.museumoflondon.org.uk/acrobatic-mystery-continued/