History in a velvet cape

Fancy putting on your own performance? A sale of theatrical costumes offers a chance of real glamour. Robin Dutt reports
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Want to be beyond retro? Fancy striking out anew with an old look? Then don't settle for imitation; have the real thing. This country has a formidable supply of antique costumes and textiles - most of them at reasonable prices and, best of all, still fabulously wearable. One of the most significant sales of the season will be held at Sotheby's next week when a large chunk of the Maddermarket Theatre collection of period costumes and accessories goes up for sale. The 156 lots are expected to fetch around pounds 40,000, and will include practically everything imaginable, including delicate, 18th-century lady's slippers, Victorian mourning garb in black velvet and jet, and sparkling Twenties and Thirties velvet evening capes and silk gowns.

The Maddermarket Theatre of Norwich is designed in the style of an Elizabethan playhouse. It is unique in that it is run professionally, with amateur actors performing. Founded in 1921 by Walter Nugent Bligh Monck, also founder of the English Drama Society, the theatre has so delighted its playgoing public that many have donated costumes and clothing to its huge wardrobe. Indeed, the playhouse's reputation attracted the talents of the international stars Marie Rambert and Dame Ninette de Valois.

The costumes donated were not a rag, tag and bobtail of desperate items which should have perhaps found their way to the local charity shop. The Norfolk public wanted a theatre to be proud of, and generously donated important period costumes, including unusual accessories such as parasols, day and evening gloves and superb hats. So generous were the donations that the already ample wardrobe became overcrowded, and the decision was taken to sell off a selection of the costumes and use the proceeds to renovate the playhouse.

The joy of staging a period drama here is obvious. Kerry Taylor, the costume specialist who was asked to catalogue the collection, is enthusiastic. "It is amazing to think that performers at the Maddermarket Theatre working on an 18th-century period production could simply walk into the wardrobe and pick an original 18th-century costume off the rail to wear on stage. This is a unique collection."

The costumes date from the 1750s to the Nineteen Sixties and most are in superb and wearable condition, despite having enjoyed several periods in the spotlight.

One of the most historically important pieces is the "Suffield Gown", named after the Dowager Lady Suffield, who donated the dress to the theatre after the Second World War. It dates from the middle of the 18th century and is made of ivory silk brocaded with silver and gold threads. The dress is scattered with large silk purple and pink flowers and carries an estimate of pounds 800-pounds 1,200.

Another highlight of the sale is a green velvet gown in the Aesthetic Movement style, circa 1878, sporting Medieval- inspired sleeves, with a matching bag suspended from the waist. The estimate is pounds 350-pounds 500.

Vivienne Westwood recently predicted that the bustle would make a return. Jean-Paul Gaultier, as we know, still loves a good corset. Other designers have begun to play with notions of padding out the hips and bottom - all ideas borrowed from the past. At the Maddermarket sale there is a wonderful selection of Victorian dresses with bustles and indeed hooped petticoats and corsets dating from 1860 to 1890, with estimates of pounds 500-pounds 700.

There are some truly beautiful Twenties evening capes and gowns in panne velvet - perfect for this season's style preoccupations - with estimates from about pounds 200 apiece; sparkling eveningwear; and even some oddities such as Spanish stoles and shawls, gloves and other accessories, at estimates from about pounds 150.

The great thing about buying garments like these is that not only do they have historical importance - and can be a sound investment - they also bring the romance of acquiring a little slice of drama in the form of a silk dress or top hat and tails. These garments have true star quality.

The sale of the Maddermarket Theatre collection of period costumes and accessories will be held at Sotheby's London on Thursday, 13 March. For further information, call 0171-493 8080).

Comments