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Revealing fashion treasures in the collections we care for

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Image of Emma Slocombe
Emma SlocombeTextiles Curator, National Trust
View of a pelisse-robe, c.1837-40, made of a mixture of wool & silk. From the Snowshill Collection at Berrington Hall.
View of a pelisse-robe, c.1837-40, made of a mixture of wool & silk. From the Snowshill Collection at Berrington Hall. | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

We look after more than 27,000 pieces of dress, most belonging to the people who lived and worked in historic houses. From the luxurious to the everyday, the collection spans over 500 years of changing tastes and fashions. Discover the collection highlights, including Killerton and the Snowshill which are home to are our largest collections.

A chemise fit for a Queen

An inscription on the front of this 16th-century linen chemise (or smock) at Coughton Court states that it was worn by Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–87) at her execution at Fotheringhay Castle on 8 February 1587. Although it is difficult to substantiate this claim, this early garment still embodies the tragic death of a monarch raised to be queen of Scotland and France.

Chemise belonging to Mary, Queen of Scots in which she was executed at Fotheringhay Castle. Of fine linen with drawn thread borders inscribed on the bodice in red and dated Feb 11 1587.
Chemise belonging to Mary, Queen of Scots at Coughton Court | © National Trust / Simon Pickering

Mary Queen of Scots' chemise, 1587, at Coughton Court, Warwickshire

Made of fine linen with a low neckline of drawn thread work, this easily laundered chemise would have been worn as an undergarment below more luxurious clothing, such as the velvet dress worn by Mary in her portrait by Rowland Lockey, painted during her imprisonment by Elizabeth I. For some, the suggestion that the queen may have worn this garment during her final hours has imbued it with the quality of a religious relic.

17th-century fasion

The English Civil War and restoration period serves as a backdrop for these 17th-century fashion items, including battlefield attire and incoming French fashions.

Sir Jacob Astley’s white military coat on a tailor's dummy at Seaton Delaval, Northumberland
Sir Jacob Astley’s military coat, c. 1640 | © National Trust/Volunteer Photography Team

Sir Jacob Astley’s military coat, c. 1640–52, at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland

The mid-17th century coat, made of four pieces of leather, is stitched at the seams with a double row at the underarms and sides to give added strength, belonged to Sir Jacob Astley, 1st Baron Astley of Reading (1579–1652), a Royalist commander during the English Civil War. As Major-General of the Foot, Astley led the infantry at major battles such as Edgehill, Newbury and Naseby; this coat and doublet would have formed part of his battlefield attire.

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18th-century luxury

The wardrobe of Lionel Tollemache, 4th Earl of Dysart at Ham House, Surrey

The wardrobe of Lionel Tollemache, 4th Earl of Dysart (1708–70) at Ham House includes the simple style of cleanly cut coats, waistcoats and breeches, popular in the 18th century. The earl also found a place for luxury fabrics purchasing expensive items from tailor Henry Joseph La Motte and other London mercers, drapers and specialist shops.

Among the most impressive is Lionel Tollemache’s silk dressing gown and slippers, from a larger toilet set likely made for his wedding in 1729. The gown is made of luxurious blue and silver silk with a pattern of flowers and lace. The earl also spent extravagant sums on clothing for his children, including a fancy dress of c. 1740 for his son. Made from cream silk and trimmed with pink ribbon, it also includes a tiny dagger.

See Tollemache's silk dressing gown

Ann Bangham’s court mantua, c. 1760, at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire

In 2016, an extraordinary silk court mantua was discovered at auction, deconstructed in a box. The mantua was made for Ann Bangham, the wife of Thomas Harley, the one-time Lord Mayor of London who built Berrington Hall. Despite Ann's high status, no portrait survives of her, so the dress acts as a document for her life. It was purchased for the National Trust, and conservators at Berrington set about carefully reconstructing it.

The mantua is made from the most fashionable cream silk brocade with a luxurious design of tumbling floral bouquets against stripes and meanders of gold thread. However, the style of the dress, with a tightly fitting bodice and stomacher worn above an over wide petticoat, was 50 years out of date by the 1750s, fashionable only in royal court circles.

See the court mantua

Conservator working at desk with Ann Bangham's dress in the background at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire
A conservator working on Ann Bangham's dress at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire | © National Trust Images/Eleanor Dobson

Benjamin Disraeli’s Chancellor’s robes, c. 1840–60 at Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire

This opulent robe of office was worn by the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81) during his three terms of office as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the mid-19th century, one of the oldest and most important roles in British government. It is made of black silk damask and is heavily embellished with gold embroidery, braid and trimming.

Worn on ceremonial occasions, it's believed that the robe once belonged to William Pitt the Younger who held the same office during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The origins of this style of state attire can be traced to the parliamentary and court fashions in England following the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

See Disraeli's robes

Fabulous frocks

Theatre, power and privilege all combine in these special dresses, including Lady Curzon's legendary peacock dress and an Edwardian a silk day dress.

Green medieval style dress on mannequin holding model crown aloft
Beetle wing dress, Smallhythe Place, Kent | © National Trust Images/David Brunetti

Dame Ellen Terry’s ‘Beetle Wing Dress’, 1888, at Smallhythe Place, Kent

Playing Lady Macbeth for the first time at London’s Lyceum Theatre on 29 December 1888, the celebrated actor Ellen Terry (1847–1928) made her appearance on stage wearing this bewitching costume. Drawing gasps from the audience, this dress of sparkling green tinsel was decorated with iridescent beetle-wing cases intended to catch and shimmer in the limelight. Medieval in inspiration, the costume was finished with a velvet heather-coloured cloak over which cascaded Terry’s lustrous, gold plaited, auburn hair. Terry subsequently likened the visual effect to the illumination of a stained-glass window.  Created by the costume designer Alice Laura Comyns-Carr and her dressmaker Ada Nettleship, the green of the dress embodied the murderous ambition of Lady Macbeth, while the beetle-wing cases fittingly evoked the ‘appearance of the scales of a serpent’.

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Changing tastes meet tradition in the 20th century

George Bernard Shaw’s rational dress, c. 1920 at Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire

Playwright, critic and activist George Bernard Shaw was a keen exponent of ‘rational dress’, a movement with its origins in the late 19th century that sought to promote the wearing of more practical, comfortable clothes than the restrictive styles common to the era.

Shaw was famous for wearing natural or rust-coloured woollen suits, some of which remain in his wardrobe at his home at Shaw's Corner.

See George Bernard Shaw's cape

Arthur Inch’s Londonderry State Livery, 1930s at Mount Stewart, County Down

Livery colours picked out from the coat-of-arms of noble families had been worn by those who served them since medieval times. By the 18th century, servants on public view – like coachmen and footmen – were provided with livery that demonstrated the status and prestige of their employer, with their powdered wigs, tailcoats and breeches styled to echo the fashion at court.

The State Livery of the Marquess of Londonderry, worn by Arthur Inch, footman, on the occasion of the coronation of King George VI in 1937 shows a design that had remained largely unchanged from 18th-century fashion.

It features a cutaway tailcoat and yellow, plush knee-breeches worn above pink stockings and patent leather buckled pumps. In the 1930s, the cost of this luxurious outfit featuring silver braid and silver crested buttons, a crested insignia epaulette on the right shoulder, with silver braided cords and long silver tassels was a considerable 50 guineas.

Churchill's favourite suit

Despite Winston Churchill’s long and distinguished military and political career, during which he amassed a large collection of uniforms and pieces of state dress, the item of clothing he most valued was his ‘siren suit’. His design was based on a boiler suit and this practical all-in-one garment featured useful breast and side pockets, turnup cuffs and a large zip down the front so it could be easily taken on and off.

Winston Churchill's Siren Suit at Chartwell, Kent
Winston Churchill's Siren Suit at Chartwell, Kent | © National Trust Images/Nick Guttridge

Sir Winston Churchill’s Siren Suit, c. 1940–50, at Chartwell, Kent

Churchill had siren suits made for him in a variety of fabrics for different purposes by tailors Turnbull & Asser and he was equally happy wearing them while painting or meeting dignitaries such as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The green velvet siren suit would have been worn with his crested slippers by Peal & Co, for informal entertaining at his family home at Chartwell. The outfit took its name from its popularity during the Second World War, where its comfortable, warm and practical design made it easy to don in haste following the sound of an air-raid siren ushering people to shelter.

Sevres Wine Cooler, showing nymphs worshipping the bust of Pan, from a service made for Louis XVI, dated 1792, in the Porcelain Lobby at Upton House, Warwickshire

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