Every seam tells a tale

The dress with its intricate gilt stitch work and the replica dress behind it

A new exhibition 'A Dress Fit for a King' is a chance for you to find out more about our work at Berrington. Discover how our curators and conservators piece together the story of this eighteenth century dress and what it can tell us about Ann Bangham, wife of the first owner of Berrington. Read more from costume curator Althea Mackenzie, who shares her view on the history behind the dress.

I don’t think anyone was prepared for the treasure that was hidden in the box that arrived from Christie’s Auction House in 2016. The description of the dress in the catalogue ‘a deconstructed court mantua, mid-eigtheenth century, the silk probably from Lyons’ raised certain expectations as did the garment’s known provenance which connected it directly to Ann Harley and Berrington Hall. What was revealed when the box was opened was a breath-takingly exquisite cream silk brocade with a design of bouquets of silk flowers interspersed with pure gold stripes and a glistening gilt meander. The colour, quality, beauty and design surpassed all expectations.  

Close up detail of the dress and it's intrice needle work

Laying out the ten various pieces it became apparent this garment was indeed of court standard and that the unpicked pieces came from a mantua of substantial size, both facts reflecting the high status of the owner and the importance of the occasion for which it must have been made. 

The quality and design of the silk suggested an origin of either Spitalfields or Lyons, both were centres of outstanding importance in the eighteenth century. Stylistically it dates from around the 1760s when designs were often floral. This was the period when, as wife of the Lord Mayor of London, Ann Harley would be expected to organise functions, entertain the great and the good and attend court and Royal functions for which she would have to have dressed according to her high status. For such occasions it was expected that women would wear a mantua, a style of dress out of fashion with the fashionable elite but insisted upon for court attendance.

" The colour, quality, beauty and design surpassed all expectations. "
- Althea MacKenzie, Costume Curator

When laid out it was apparent that the dress sections formed a complete mantua apart from the sleeve and the stomacher. One of the first questions the mantua raised was whether it should remain as it was found, in pieces, or whether it could be reconstructed and the missing pieces replaced. The quality of the silk is such that it was decided that reconstruction would not compromise or endanger the stability of the fabric. Given the rarity of such garments from this period, the reconstructed mantua would be an important addition to known examples.  

This is an example of the outfits the Georgian gentry wore from 1740-1773
An image of regency gentry enjoying their garden in their fine gowns
This is an example of the outfits the Georgian gentry wore from 1740-1773

Very little is known about Ann Harley and no portrait has been found, so by recreating the dress it will be possible to give Ann a physical three-dimensional presence. As the reconstruction progresses it is hoped that other, more technical, questions may possibly be answered. We could discover who designed the fabric, where the exact origin of the fabric was, where the gold originated and other details of the technology behind the manufacture of the fabric. There may also be archival evidence relating to the purchase, how much it cost, who made it up. 

As with most conservation projects more questions than answers are raised as the project unfolds. What is certain as the dress emerges and as the various pieces are put together, is that it is certainly ‘a dress fit for a king’.