Dressing up at Montacute

Recent visitors to Montacute House have frequently been welcomed by an affluent-looking Tudor gentleman. Volunteer Chris Stevens is one of a small but growing group of volunteers who have been recently wearing Tudor costumes around the house. Val Barker, our Volunteer Correspondent, tells us more.

'I’ve always liked dressing-up,' he says, 'so I jumped at this chance.' Small children sometimes ask him if he’s a ghost; grown-ups are more practical: Is it warm?  Did you make it?

The answer to this last question is that it was made by fellow volunteer, Jenny Jones, who painstakingly unpicked and re-worked the leather and heavy blue silk suits which had been two demonstration costumes (but fronts only) on a stand, and which were no longer needed. 'It took hours and hours,' says Jenny, 'but I couldn’t bear for it all to be thrown away.'

The idea for introducing costumes into the house came from the Changing Rooms Project, and has been overseen by Visitor Engagement Officer, Tracey Derbyshire. Earlier in 2015, she brought together willing needleworkers and willing wearers. Dawn Batchelar made a costume for Tricia Wood, who when asked by visitors about her 'character' introduces herself as companion to the lady-of-the-house. Dawn was given a pattern and 7 metres of fabric, most of which went into the skirt. The task took a long time – at least 35 hours, and Tricia wore the dress first in the summer of 2015.

Both Tricia and Jenny (who also made her own housekeeper’s dress) think the costumes give them a better understanding of Tudor women and their lives. 'It’s heavy,' says Tricia. 'After three or four hours I’m physically tired. The sleeves are shaped in a curve at the elbow so that straightening the arms fully isn’t possible. And wearing the dress makes me stand very upright and move more slowly.'

Tricia, Dawn, Jenny and Chris all agree about the effects their costumes have on visitors. They are an ice-breaker; they lighten the mood and enhance the spirit of place. They open up opportunities for conversations about fabrics, washing (or lack of it!), and the social hierarchies in Montacute House.  

Jenny Jones is most passionate about her third costume project. Over the last 12 months she has made over 14 outfits for visiting children to be dressed-up in. They are made cheaply; she scours charity shops for curtains and bed-linen. The costumes have to be washable and easy to take on and off. Nevertheless, even these simplified dresses, jackets and trousers make children feel different. Mair Hutchfield, a volunteer who normally works with school parties, has been dressing children on Saturday afternoons, and has found their enthusiasm very rewarding. 'I’ve loved it,' she says, 'and so, I can see, have the children.'

Reflecting on these past months of activity, Tracey Derbyshire says this: 'I feel overwhelmed by the generosity and goodwill of all those volunteers who have supported me in this project. It has been embraced with such gusto, and we have achieved a great level of success, creating memorable experiences for our visitors.'

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