Revealing the fashion treasures in our collection
We look after more than 27,000 pieces of dress, most belonging to the people who lived and worked in our historic houses. From the luxurious to the everyday, the collection spans over 500 years of changing taste and fashion. While Killerton, the Snowshill collection at Berrington Hall and Mount Stewart are our largest collections, treasures can also be found in numerous houses.
Clothes are intimate and personal. They connect us to the physical essence of the original wearer and tell us something about who they were and the life they led. Clothing is discarded when it wears out or falls out of fashion, so when clothes do survive it's often because they have been kept for a special reason, and so have a story to tell.
Emma Slocombe, Textiles Curator, presents her collection highlights, arranged chronologically here.
Mary Queen of Scots' chemise, 1587
Coughton Court, Warwickshire
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.
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.
Sir Jacob Astley’s military coat, c. 1640–52
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland
A parchment note attached to this mid-17th century buff leather coat and doublet from the collection at Seaton Delaval Hall confirms it once 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.
Astley’s coat is made of four pieces of leather and is stitched at the seams with a double row at the underarms and sides to give added strength. This tough garment would have been worn beneath armour, offering protection and cushioning. Although primarily a practical garment, the sleeves are adorned with fashionable vertical bands of braid, couched in gold and silver threads. The front opens to reveal the decorative buttons of the doublet.
Edmund Verney’s doublet and petticoat breeches, 1660–2
Claydon House, Buckinghamshire
Edmund Verney’s figured silk doublet and petticoat breeches at Claydon House are an exceptional example of a form of men’s fashionable dress that flourished following the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. The style was brought to England from France, where the court had been in exile. It was notable for the lavish bunches of ribbons that decorated suits and exaggerated breeches that were likened to petticoats worn by women.
Eighteen-year-old Edmund Verney came from a family of silk merchants who had also returned from exile to their family seat at Claydon House. He marked his new social status by commissioning a suit of cream-coloured figured silk with matching cloak and gloves, all trimmed with 216 yards of knotted and bowed ribbons. Made to measure, the complex tailoring reveals that Edmund had scoliosis, and that padding was added to his doublet to mask the curvature of his spine.
The 18th-century wardrobe of Lionel Tollemache, 4th Earl of Dysart (1708–70)
Ham House, Surrey
During the 18th century, men’s tailoring gradually eschewed the flamboyance of the 17th century for a simpler style of cleanly cut coats, waistcoats and breeches, such as these at Ham House worn by Lionel Tollemache, 4th Earl of Dysart.
But there was still place for luxury in fabrics. Between 1733 and 1741, the earl paid tailor Henry Joseph La Motte £575 6s 3d for clothes and textiles. He also made orders for expensive items from other London mercers, drapers and specialist shops who sold everything a discerning man of fashion might need, from Italian velvet and shoe buckles to new accessories such as watches.
The most impressive survival 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.
Ann Bangham’s court mantua, c. 1760
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.
Fabulous frocks, fabulous fabrics
Made of silk woven in Spitalfields, London, the design of naturalistic flowers is inspired by botanical illustrations. It is likely to have been worn by one of the Stricklands at Sizergh Castle, Cumbria.
This sack-back gown, or robe à la française, is made of striped French silk with tiny brocade flowers. The style evolved from negligée gowns worn privately at home. From the Snowshill Collection at Berrington.
Cotton revolutionised fashion as it was cheap and easily cleaned. The cotton of this printed gown, although woven in England, is likely made of raw cotton grown by enslaved people in North America or the West Indies.
Fine muslin imported from India became the fabric of choice at the turn of the 19th century. The neckline and sleeves of this evening dress are embroidered with silk flowers using a type of chain stitch known as ari work.
Benjamin Disraeli’s Chancellor’s robes, c. 1840–60
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.
Dame Ellen Terry’s ‘Beetle Wing Dress’, 1888
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’.
" I was anxious to make this particular dress look as much like soft chain armour as I could, and yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent. "
The ‘Peacock Dress’ of Mary Curzon, Vicereine of India, 1900–2
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Power and privilege are embodied in the design and materials of this spectacular dress worn by Mary Curzon (1870–1906) to the ball celebrating Edward VII’s coronation as Emperor of India on 6 January 1903, hosted by her husband George Curzon, the Viceroy of India.
The dress’s fabric was embroidered by Indian craftsmen in a sophisticated design of overlapping peacock feathers, a motif associated with the Hindu god Lord Krishna and the goddess Saraswati, and incorporated an iridescent beetle-wing case on each eye. Supplied to the French couture house of Worth in Paris, this ‘veritable Temple of fashion’ created an evening gown in the style of the season. It features a tightly fitting bodice worn over a corset, which allowed the dress to fall away from the shoulders without losing its form. Below this, a full-length skirt and train are finished with roses at the hem.
Rosamond Hussey’s day dress, c. 1910
Scotney Castle, Kent
This cream- and black-striped silk day dress belonged to Rosamond Hussey of Scotney Castle. With light, billowing sleaves and black sash pulled tightly at the waist, the dress is a beautiful example of the flowing grace of Edwardian dress style that nevertheless required a boned bodice worn over a corset to create the curvaceous look.
Rosamond Hussey was painted wearing her dress and a fashionable wide-brimmed hat with matching black sash by artist J.J. Shannon in 1912. Photographs survive showing her sitting for the artist above her garden, with a view of the old medieval castle in the background. Together, the dress, portrait and photographs provide a rare record of a woman and perhaps her favourite dress at the turn of the 20th century.
George Bernard Shaw’s rational dress, c. 1920
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. He was an enthusiastic patron of the Jaeger Sanitary Woollen Company set up by German professor Gustav Jaeger, who promoted the belief that wearing clothes of un-dyed wool was beneficial to health as it was absorbent and allowed the skin to breathe. The woollen suits became popularly known as ‘Jaegers’, their design considered to be both stylish and hygienic.
Arthur Inch’s Londonderry State Livery, 1930s
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 an enormous 50 guineas.
Sir Winston Churchill’s Siren Suit, c. 1940–50
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’. Based on a boiler suit, 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.
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, practical design made it easy to don in haste following the sound of an air-raid siren ushering people to shelter.