If clothes could talk...

Dress conservators preparing Ellen Terry beetle wing dress for display at Smallhythe Place, Kent.

Fashion can inspire both shock and admiration. It can also reveal fascinating insights into history. If the garments in our collections could talk they'd have many tales to tell. Discover the stories of clothes worn during fierce battles, colonial parties, revolutions and much more.

Revolutionary undergarments

As France spiralled into revolution, were these the garters that its queen – Marie Antoinette – wore under her extravagant dresses? Inspired by designs in late 18th-century false teeth, Belgian dentist Vanbuchel encased rows of tiny brass springs in silk, to make the garters. He had to ensure they held stockings up effectively without cutting off blood supply and causing varicose veins. This was a luxury most of the queen’s subjects would not have had to worry about.

Intricate embroidery and poetry adorn these garters believed to have belonged to Marie-Antoinette / NT 1350074
Garters believed to have belonged to Marie-Antoinette

Military chic

This military buff coat at Seaton Delaval was worn in the English Civil War / NT 1276655.1
This military buff coat at Seaton Delaval was worn in the English Civil War

Canon and musket fire would have whistled past this coat's leather sleeves during the English Civil War. It is a lucky survivor of some of the war’s major battles. The buff-coat and doublet was worn by Sir Jacob Astley, a Cavalier commander. He fought in the Battle of Newburn Ford in 1640 which broke out after Charles I tried to force a new prayer book on the Scots. The fine gold and silver stitching exemplifies the style for which the Royalist side become known.

You can see the outfit along with a portrait of Sir Jacob wearing a similar coat at Seaton Delaval, Northumberland.

A dress fit for a coronation

Lady Curzon wore this dress in Delhi at the greatest pageant in history / NT 107881
The peacock dress at Kedleston Hall

Lady Curzon wore this ‘peacock dress’ at an extravagant ball held to celebrate Edward VII’s coronation in Delhi on New Year’s Day 1903. She was wife of the Vicerory of India; together they arrived at the festivities with the maharajahs, riding on elephants with huge gold candelabras attached to the tusks. This celebration was known as the Delhi Durbar and was described as ‘the greatest pageant in history’. Lady Curzon’s peacock dress drew much attention from the world press. It is made of gold cloth and embroidered with peacock feathers. In the ‘eye’ of each feather, there is a shimmering green beetle wing, which many mistook for emeralds. To complete the spectacular look on the day of the ball, the skirt was trimmed with white roses.

See the dress at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire.

Ellen Terry's most iconic role as Lady Macbeth

Insect-inspired bling 

Imagine 1,000 iridescent beetle wings glittering in the lights when Ellen Terry took to the stage in this dress. The 19th century theatre star wore it in one of her most famous performances as Lady Macbeth. It was crocheted using a soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn. Terry wrote to her daughter: ‘I wish you could see my dresses. They are superb, especially the first one: green beetles on it, and such a cloak! The whole thing is Rossetti—rich stained-glass effects’.

See the gown at Smallhythe, Kent along with a painting of it, by John Singer Sargent.

The Throckmorton coat laid out on a table

Coat making challenge 

When Sir John Throckmorton put this coat on for the first time, he must have been feeling extremely smug. He had just won the equivalent of £64,000 in today’s money on a wager. He bet that his cutting-edge mill machinery could make a coat in a single day. Crowds gathered to watch the wool being shorn, washed, dyed, spun and then stitched by tailors. Sir John wore it to dinner that night. The sheep that provided the wool were roasted in celebration.

See the coat at Coughton Court, Warwickshire, and a portrait of Sir John wearing it.