May blog: Bloomin’ lovely

Blue dress from Killerton collection

It’s apple blossom time at Killerton. The orchards are looking beautiful, dressed in pink and white blossom, and bluebells are colouring the forest walks.

It’s time to think about that summer frock and lighter clothes for sunny holidays and special occasions to come. Printed, painted, embroidered or woven, pattern blooms are everywhere in our collection, on men's, women's and children’s dress.

Florals are never out of fashion, as these pretty and elegant things from the Killerton collections show.  They have been chosen to illustrate the diversity of craftsmanship and skill that can be discovered in our store-rooms. You can find more lovely floral prints and exciting embroidered pieces over on the National Trust collections website.

A garden of delights

The natural shades used to produce the yarn for this colourful gown are amazingly well preserved. Undyed linen is embroidered with floral motifs in fine wool thread. The design is so naturalistic that it is easy to identify pinks (carnations), roses, hearts-ease (viola), and strawberries. The dress was made and worn by an ancestor of the scholar and author ‘Q’, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch.

It’s said that this dress was stitched by Susannah Courtenay herself who, according to family legend, had ‘married beneath her’ and was forced to make her own clothes. The dress was probably altered several times, ending up in its current shape in about 1760-80. It’s been suggested that this gown is an example of eighteenth century upcycling. It may have been made up from embroidered linen worked at a much earlier date, and repurposed for resourceful Susannah’s wardrobe. The embroidery and motifs are very similar to those used on bed hangings in the early eighteenth century.

Natural linen embroidered dress
1770 Natural linen embroidered dress
Natural linen embroidered dress

Hedgerow ramble

This little hand-made lace cuff is an example of the skill of East Devon lace-makers. According to the 1851 census at least one lace-maker was still working in Broadclyst, on the Killerton estate. Bobbin lace was made over a wide area of East Devon, and either sold locally or sent by coach or rail to large urban centres like London and Manchester. Many of the motifs were traditional, inspired by Devon hedgerow and garden plants. Here you can pick out a bluebell or harebell design worked in guipure lace, with an edging combining two old motifs, blackberry and pear, which would have been well-known to nineteenth century lace-makers.

Handmade lace cuff
Handmade lace cuff
Handmade lace cuff

Couture coatee

Later in May I’ll be planning a visit to Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion in London. It’s a new exhibition at the V&A Museum, examining the work and legacy of influential Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972), ‘the master’ of couture, his protégées and contemporary fashion designers working in the same innovative tradition.

" Balenciaga uses fabrics like a sculptor working in marble"
- Cecil Beaton

The Killerton collection proudly looks after two inspiring post-war pieces by Balenciaga, including this evening jacket. Skilfully cut from silk satin, the jacket exhibits all the hallmarks of Balenciaga’s craftsmanship. This little garment would have been custom made for a perfect fit. The sleek, elegant lines show off the couturiers refined cutting technique and the overall effect is one of lightness and elegance. The vividly coloured appliqué is carried out in raffia and sequins, encrusting the satin with abstract flower shapes.

Balenciaga was hugely influential and had a unique relationship with the embroidery workshops he collaborated with for his designs. He worked with esteemed companies such as the House of Lesage, as well as rival couture embroiderers like René Bégué (Rébé) and Lisbeth.

Incidentally, the idea of creating a short ‘bolero’ jacket stemmed from Balenciaga’s own Basque Spanish roots. Short embroidered coatees were translated into many different fabrics and shapes at Balenciaga’s Paris house, established at 10 Avenue Georges V in 1937.They evolved from the lavishly embroidered jackets worn by matadors.

Balenciaga ladies evening jacket
Balenciaga ladies evening jacket 1930
Balenciaga ladies evening jacket

Bluebell appeal

Another favourite couture piece stored at Killerton is part of a large collection of bespoke and ready-to-wear clothing worn by Jean Appleyard, wife of John Appleyard, chairman of the motor distribution company Appleyards, and one time chair of Jaguar. Jean’s wardrobe spans the late 1940s to the early 1970s and includes accessories by Rayne and Aage Thaarup as well as clothing by Mayfair fashion house Picqué and upmarket label Diana Allen. Jean lived in Torquay, but attended many important functions and events around the country.

The pretty ‘bluebell’ dress was made for Jean for a special occasion. Cut from feminine pale blue chiffon and elaborately embroidered with sparkling sequins, beads and crystals it’s a show-stopping cocktail length dress made in the late 1950s or early 1960s when shorter lengths were becoming more acceptable wear for formal evening functions. The lightweight plastic bluebell shaped beads would have made a pleasing sound as the wearer moved, and certainly attracted attention.

Top quality workmanship and petal inspired designs, what a great combination!

Blue chiffon gown
Blue chiffon short evening gown 1960
Blue chiffon gown

Killerton's collection

Find photographs and details of thousands of items, from dress patterns to ballgowns to underwear and shawls.