Costume Drama: Fashion from 1790 to 1850, the latest exhibition at Sudley House

A vibrant blue brocade day dress

Fashion Forrest Gump’s mamma always said, “you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, where the go, where they've been” but as I discovered today at Costume Drama: Fashion from 1790 to 1850, the latest exhibition at Sudley House, it also helps if you can see the cut of the rest of their jib. When I arrive, exhibition curator Pauline Rushton is giving a talk during which she notes that when a lot of these fashions were acquired in the 1950s, retaining the details of the owner wasn’t of primary concern. Now we live in times were social history is just as important as design, such lost details have gained a new importance.

But all is not lost. The one male costume in the first room, a smart suit and britches seems from an initial glance to be the attire of someone very well to do. As the curator says, the usual reaction from visitors is “Oh, Mr Darcy.” Except if you look closer, you realise that the jacket and waist coat are made from a cotton derived fabric of a kind which would never be utilised by a member of the upper classes in this configuration and which is strong enough that it can be worn in most weathers and still keep its integrity. The trousers are corduroy, again not a fabric usually associated with the landed gentry.

So it’s possible to surmise that this is a working man’s suit. Except that it’s not designed for manual labour, the owner couldn’t lift a spade with it, so it has to be for someone who manages the workers, or collects land tax. Pauline said that it’s her favourite piece in the room and by the time she’d finished it was mine too, simply because it was such an expressive example of deductive reasoning and a demonstration that even the fashions which might not be the most aesthetically pleasing at first glance, certainly in comparison to some of the frocks on display, like some people, have hidden depths.

Across its three rooms, Costume Drama can’t and doesn’t seek to offer a complete picture of fashions in this period. As the title suggests, this is an opportunity for fans of Austen and her many adaptations to see the real deal up close, and gain some measure in seeing the accuracy with which the BBC costume department et al have created the period settings across these years. All of the dresses look like they could have the beating heart of Jennifer Ehle, Kate Winslet or Ruth Wilson beneath them but unlike some modern fashions still work as beautiful display objects in and of themselves.

The vibrant blue brocade day dress pictured above is probably my favourite simply because the colour is such a statement much needed for this frock's probably function in the early 1840s as the "going away dress" for a bride after a wedding, presumably something of a contrast from the white of the wedding dress. In this period, white was the predominant colour and seen as a sign of "purity and innocence" and most were designed to resemble to Greek marble statues which were being excavated at the time.

The most expensive dress costumes contain elaborate embroidery but it wasn’t until the advent of more complex printing processes, from hand printing to the placing of the pattern on a roll that the fabric in every day clothes became more complex. For a period, it was fashionable for the sleeves to have a “mutton leg” a kind of ball shaped bunching which began at the shoulder then across the years moved down the arm until the Victorian era when they were removed altogether.

Partly that was to do with fashion but mostly it was to do with a change in values. As the middle class ascended, we descended into what are now described as Victorian values, and fashions reflecting that with slimmer sleeves and the loss of low necklines. We loosened up again eventually, but clothes do still make the person.  Perhaps we'll never reach a point where they stop being about projecting a set of moral choices or the connection to a sub-culture and simply become something to keep us warm.

Until 7 May 2012.  Details here.

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