Revealing the fashion treasures in our collection

Emma Slocombe, Textiles Curator Emma Slocombe Textiles Curator

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.  

Linen chemise of 1587, said to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots, Coughton Court, Warwickshire
Linen chemise said to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots
Linen chemise of 1587, said to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots, 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. 

The chemise (left) would have been worn underneath more formal dress, as in the portrait of Mary (right) of 1578 by Rowland Lockey at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Inscription on chemise
The chemise (left) would have been worn underneath more formal dress, as in the portrait of Mary (right) of 1578 by Rowland Lockey at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

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.

Military coat, c. 1640–52, Seaton Delaval, Northumberland
Sir Jacob Astley’s Military Coat
Military coat, c. 1640–52, Seaton Delaval, Northumberland

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.

The coat and doublet (left), are similar to the buff waistcoat pictured beneath a metal breastplate in the portrait (right) of Sir Astley, 18th-century copy by Rhoda Delaval after a 17th-century original
Astley’s coat
The coat and doublet (left), are similar to the buff waistcoat pictured beneath a metal breastplate in the portrait (right) of Sir Astley, 18th-century copy by Rhoda Delaval after a 17th-century original

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.

Silk doublet and petticoat breeches, 1660–2, Claydon, Buckinghamshire
Edmund Verney’s Doublet and Petticoat Breeches
Silk doublet and petticoat breeches, 1660–2, Claydon, Buckinghamshire

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.

Coat and breeches of off-white silk, c. 1760 (left); Suit of patterned Italian velvet, c. 1760 (right), Ham House, Surrey
Clothing worn by Earl of Dysart
Coat and breeches of off-white silk, c. 1760 (left); Suit of patterned Italian velvet, c. 1760 (right), Ham House, Surrey

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.

Lionel Tollemache’s silk dressing gown, c. 1729, Ham House, Surrey
Lionel Tollemche’s silk dressing gown
Lionel Tollemache’s silk dressing gown, c. 1729, Ham House, Surrey

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.

Boy’s fancy dress of cream silk, c. 1740, worn by one of the children of the 4th Earl and Countess Dysart, Ham House
Boy’s fancy dress of cream silk
Boy’s fancy dress of cream silk, c. 1740, worn by one of the children of the 4th Earl and Countess Dysart, Ham House

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.

Back of Ann Bangham’s court mantua, c. 1760, on display at Berrington Hall
Court mantua from 1760
Back of Ann Bangham’s court mantua, c. 1760, on display at Berrington Hall

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.

A close up of the exquisite fabric

A closer look

A close up of the exquisite fabric of the mantua, showing the use of gold thread amidst the stripes and flowers, intended to glimmer in the candlelight of evening functions.

Conservator stitching into the silk of the Ann Bangham dress

Reconstructing the mantua

After having been found deconstructed in a box at auction, sections of the dress were carefully restored and pieced back together by conservator Melangell Penrhys.

Fabulous frocks, fabulous fabrics

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.  

Chancellor of the Exchequer’s robes worn by Benjamin Disraeli, c.1840–60
Chancellor of the Exchequer’s robes worn by Benjamin Disraeli
Chancellor of the Exchequer’s robes worn by Benjamin Disraeli, c.1840–60

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.

The ‘Beetle Wing Dress’, Alice Laura Comyns-Carr, 1888, Smallhythe Place, Kent
The ‘Beetle Wing Dress’
The ‘Beetle Wing Dress’, Alice Laura Comyns-Carr, 1888, Smallhythe Place, Kent

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’.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in a painted sketch by John Singer Sargent (left) and in a photograph of 1888 (right), Smallhythe Place, Kent
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in a painted sketch by John Singer Sargent (left) and in a photograph of 1888 (right), Smallhythe Place, Kent
" 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 'Peacock Dress', made by unknown Indian textile manufacturers and embroiderers, House of Worth, Paris, c. 1900–2, Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
The Peacock Dress
The 'Peacock Dress', made by unknown Indian textile manufacturers and embroiderers, House of Worth, Paris, c. 1900–2, Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

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.

Left: The rose-trimmed train of the 'Peacock Dress'; Right: 1909 portrait of Lady Curzon wearing the 'Peacock Dress', Kedleston Hall, Derybshire
The Peacock Dress
Left: The rose-trimmed train of the 'Peacock Dress'; Right: 1909 portrait of Lady Curzon wearing the 'Peacock Dress', Kedleston Hall, Derybshire

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’ s day dress, c.1910, Scotney Castle, Kent
Rosamond Hussey’ s Day Dress
Rosamond Hussey’ s day dress, c.1910, Scotney Castle, Kent

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.

Left: Portrait of Rosamond Hussey (1910); Right: Photograph of Hussey having her portrait painted by J.J. Shannon at Scotney Castle
Hussey day dress
Left: Portrait of Rosamond Hussey (1910); Right: Photograph of Hussey having her portrait painted by J.J. Shannon at Scotney Castle

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.  

Left: Clothes hanging in a wardrobe in George Bernard Shaw's bedroom at Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire; Right: Shaw in the garden, c. 1920
George Bernard Shaw's suit
Left: Clothes hanging in a wardrobe in George Bernard Shaw's bedroom at Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire; Right: Shaw in the garden, c. 1920

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
The State Livery of the Marquess of Londonderry
The State Livery of the Marquess of Londonderry

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. 

Arthur Inch wearing the State Livery of the Marquess of Londonderry, 1937
Arthur Inch composite
Arthur Inch wearing the State Livery of the Marquess of Londonderry, 1937

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

Chartwell, Kent

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.

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

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.

Winston Churchill uniforms

Churchill's uniforms

Also at Chartwell, Churchill's family home in Kent, is a collection of his uniforms and pieces of state dress. From left to right: Captain of Trinity House uniform; Privy Councillor, full dress tailcoat; Colonel of the IVth Hussars, service dress tunic.