The conservation of costume collections with ‘design, colour and craftsmanship’

Someone looking at part of a historic costume collection

Here at Berrington we are lucky enough to be part of the project to conserve the Charles Paget Wade costume collection. This 2,000 piece collection needs a lot of conservation and care. To do this we have Althea MacKenzie, Costume Curator. She has offered to give you an insight into what the collection is made of, the types of care the collection needs and some of its history.

The Charles Wade Costume collection comes from Snowshill Manor and comprises around 2,200 items, dating from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. The costume was just one aspect of Charles Wade’s collections. He was interested in anything hand crafted being led by ‘design, colour and craftsmanship’. He also had a passion for theatre and dressing up and he and his guests would wear the collection for their amateur dramatic performances.

There are plenty of hidden treasures
Women looking at some of the costume collection in the store rooms

When Wade gave the collection to the National Trust in 1951 the costume was largely housed in one room. As it became apparent that the collection comprised of some very important and unusual pieces it was decided to send it to the Conservation Studios at Blikling, Norfolk. Here it was assessed in terms of its condition and where some remedial conservation could take place. Once boxed there there was no space for the collection to return to Snowshill Manor. It is then, in 1990, that the collection came to Berrington temporarily and a curator was appointed for one day a week to provide access.

" led by ‘design, colour and craftsmanship’"
- Althea MacKenzie, Costume curator

Althea MacKenzie, the collections current curator, was appointed in 1999. It’s her job to maintain and improve the storage of the collection. She also provides access to the collection and organises displays at Berrington and Snowshill Manor. 

The collection needs a lot of careful care and management to ensure that it is preserved. It’s housed in three rooms which are thermostatically controlled so that the humidity and temperature remain steady. Because costume and textiles are organic they absorb and lose moisture so it is important to reduce any sudden changes. Too dry conditions embrittle the textiles and too damp a condition will lead to mould. 

" Wade felt very strongly that the collection should be enjoyed and that viewing it directly rather than through glass...was a more rewarding experience"
- Althea MacKenzie, Costume curator

As well as this the costumes are boxed in acid free boxes lined with acid free tissue. Over time the acid free paper absorbs impurities from the environment and needs to be replaced. Working with volunteers the whole collection has been re-boxed over the past year.

The collection gathers a lot of interest. A large part of Althea’s job is about answering enquiries and providing access to the public, whether it be general or specialist interest. We have even ‘built up good relationships with several of the Universities teaching Costume design, particularly for film and theatre’.

Some of the interest gathered has come from local colleges, schools and groups. We have been able to work with them and allow these groups to draw their own inspirations from the collection. There is an example of this in the upstairs of Berrington with the work from the sewing group, ‘Frock on’.   

Design, colour and craftsmenship inspired Wade
A floral patterned costume from the collection

The interest that it gathers has been remembered in several publications which have highlighted the importance of the collection. Janet Arnold in her ‘Patterns of Fashion’ drew scaled patterns from several pieces of the collection and Nancy Bradfield in ‘Costume in Detail’ made detailed sketches of all the women’s costume. Jane Ashelford used the National Trust’s three main costume collections (Snowshill, Killerton and Springfield) to illustrate her book ‘The Art of Dress’ and more recently four books on aspects of the collection were published.

Charles Wade felt very strongly that the collection should be enjoyed and that viewing it directly rather than through glass in a museum setting was a much more rewarding experience. It is this that we maintain and work with. If you're interested in the collection then Althea has invited anyone to please get in touch.