Secrets bursting to come out of the closet: Roger Tredre visits a collection of historic costumes looking for a home where the public can share its wonders

Roger Tredre
Sunday 11 April 1993 23:02

LADY FAIRHAVEN was probably the Victorian equivalent of a fashion victim. She was a slip of a thing in the 1890s, with a wardrobe full of narrow-waisted dresses, but her weight increased with the years. By the Thirties, she was, to put it politely, a big woman.

They know all about Lady Fairhaven's weight problem at Strangers' Hall, Norwich's museum of domestic life. Her dresses are stored there, and Marjorie Budd, who works in the costume department, is cataloguing every extra inch on her ladyship's waistline. Once a week, she comes into the museum to tut-tut over Lady Fairhaven's figure and to draw dresses for the collection's reference files.

Last week, she was sketching another Lady Fairhaven frock, a well- to-do woman's fantasy in gold tissue, net lace and exquisite embroidery. 'It's from 1906,' she said, matter-of- factly. 'Before she got huge.'

Mrs Budd will soon complete her 100th drawing of costumes from the museum. 'I don't get paid for it, but I love it. You never know what's coming up next. They've just let me loose on the Edwardians.'

Mrs Budd is one of only a handful of people who have seen this exceptional costume and textile collection. Just one small room in the museum is available for display. The rest of the collection has to be stored away in boxes in two claustrophobic back rooms and in cupboards in the administrative offices.

Every museum has storage problems, but few can be as acute as those facing Strangers' Hall. Fiona Strodder, the museum's curator, leads me up a narrow staircase to the loft, where she keeps one of the finest sections of the collection: several hundred printed and woven shawls, many of them made in Norwich in the mid-19th century, when the town's manufacturers were turning out shawls as fine as any produced in the workshops of Paisley.

Although no match for the Victoria & Albert Museum or the Museum of Costume in Bath, the Strangers' Hall costume and textiles collection is a jewel among regional collections. Four years ago, Miss Strodder helped to found a Costume and Textile Association to campaign for a permanent home for the collection. Some hope. Norfolk Museums Service, which runs Strangers' Hall, runs 15 other museums county-wide, all competing for extra local-authority funding. Strangers' Hall is just one of the hundreds of regional museums struggling to get by on meagre budgets.

You need an appointment to see the costume collection. Strangers' Hall, a building little changed since the 17th century, stands well back from a street in Charing Cross, in the heart of Norwich. You climb the steps, twist a huge circular door-pull, and glide through several centuries of history, beginning in a 15th- century hall hung with Flemish tapestries, passing through a mahogany- furnished Georgian dining room, and then taking a side door into what was once a Victorian sitting room.

Here, in this cramped inner sanctum, lined with boxes and bags of clothes, a dedicated group of local women work part time to preserve and catalogue a collection of extraordinary quality.

Unlike the V & A Museum, Strangers' Hall has relatively few examples of 'high' fashion. Its real strength is everyday clothes, the clothes ordinary people wore when they went about their business. Miss Strodder pulls back a sheet covering a rail and pulls out a series of garments: a coachman's cape; a woman's leather motoring coat; a horse dealer's waistcoat and an agricultural labourer's corduroy jacket.

Then she finds a real gem; it's a battered Edwardian Norfolk jacket in a heavy worsted cloth with big leather-lined pockets. Garments such as these bring history to life. I wanted to slip it on, feel the jacket on my shoulders. Was it the favourite jacket of a country squire? Or did it belong to a poacher? How did it end up in the backroom of a museum?

This collection makes private clothes public. Miss Strodder is particularly proud of the museum's collection of underwear. A few pieces are displayed in the public gallery: Victorian corsets and petticoats; bras and knickers from the Twenties and Thirties. A mother stares long and hard at a severely laced corset, and nudges her daughter: 'How would you like to wear one of those?'

Museum curators say costume and fashion are of growing interest to both academics and the general public. The country's four biggest collections are at the V & A in London, the Museum of Costume in Bath, the Museum of London and the Gallery of English Costume in Platt Hall, Manchester. There are, however, dozens of smaller regional collections of note in towns like Leicester, Nottingham, Exeter, Birmingham and Cheltenham. Most of them contend with the same problem that faces Strangers' Hall: the struggle to make the most of limited resources.

Miss Strodder thinks the public's enthusiasm for costume and textiles is straightforward: 'Everyone can identify with clothes. We all wear them. There's something here for everyone.'

Much of the collection was built up in a haphazard sort of way by the Bolingbroke family, who presented Strangers' Hall and all its contents to the City of Norwich in 1922. When Pamela Clabburn took up the post of assistant keeper in 1964, she was intrigued by what she found. 'I knew nothing about the costume collection. It was full of interesting things. I remember there was a whole bundle wrapped up in a towel and never undone, full of bits from the early 1800s.'

Miss Clabburn, now 79, is chairman of the Costume and Textile Association. In 1966, she personally moved the entire collection from the town's Castle Museum, where it had been housed for years, to Strangers' Hall. 'I carried the collection myself, the whole lot, down from the castle over my arm. It took three months.'

While Miss Clabburn was steadily cataloguing the thousands of pieces, she was also adding to the collection, tapping into the network of local families and turning up find after find. 'I very much went for occupational clothes, middle class rather than upper class. I remember longing to get hold of a pair of the leather cuffs worn by glass cutters.'

The collection grew steadily. When I looked around last week, I spotted clothes and accessories from every historical period: 18th-century boys' suits; platforms from the Seventies; Edwardian bathing costumes; modern scouts' uniforms; nuns' habits; top hats; petticoats and waistcoats. And it includes textiles in abundance, such as lace, silk embroidery, darning samplers, and patchwork and crocheted bedcovers.

No one is quite sure of the size of the collection, but the accessories alone add up to more than 1,500 items. There are 160 hats and caps, 350 handbags and purses, 250 fans, 160 stockings, 95 scarves, 80 handkerchiefs, 170 gloves, 110 walking sticks, 175 umbrellas and parasols.

June Dalton, who has been working on the collection for 20 years, took out a box to show me a recently restored woven silk brocade coat and breeches, made in 1735. She lifted the hem to reveal the horsehair lining that makes the skirt of the jacket stand out. The restoration job took 18 months; Mrs Dalton worked on it one day a week and wrote up her labours in the journal of the Costume Society.

Will this superb collection ever be seen by a wider public? The Norfolk Museums Service is sympathetic to the Costume and Textile Association's campaign for a new home. But finding the funds is likely to be a long haul: few local authorities have much spare cash. The options will be reviewed again in November, according to Brian McWilliams, principal assistant director.

Miss Clabburn, a forthright and energetic character despite her years, remains optimistic about the chances of the collection finding a permanent home. 'I'm certain it will happen, although I shall be under the soil by then. The problem is persuading people who can't see the collection. If only we could spread everything out on a football pitch and show it off.'

Access to the collection is by appointment only. Write to Fiona Strodder, Strangers' Hall, Charing Cross, Norwich NR2 4AL. The museum is open to the public Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm.

(Photographs omitted)

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