The Art of Dress: 18th Century Frocks and Finery opens in Lincoln

At last. Painstaking research, negotiation and scrabbling around for much needed funding has finally come to fruition as a rare example of an 18th century mantua gown goes on display today in its home county of Lincolnshire at The Collection, in the city of Lincoln.

The brilliance of the fabric remains breathtaking

The brilliance of the fabric of the mantua gown remains breathtaking

The dress, made in 1735 from Spitalfields silk, has been languishing in the archives of the Usher Gallery since 1937 when it was donated by the family who had owned it its entire life. Its long term storage is no doubt a huge contribution to its survival.

The reason this dress is so unique is because of the content of the dye itself. The lace floral pattern weave in a variety of colours has a black ground. Black dye though not actually rare in the 18th century was incredibly harmful to the silk fabrics on which it was placed since it contains iron components. These begin to eat away at the silk fibre almost as soon as it is applied hence any clothing remaining nearly 300 years later is a rarity.

The history and conservation of the dress which, despite how it looks now, was in poor condition when it was rediscovered in 2008, was carried out by one of the country’s foremost textiles conservators Sheila Landi who formerly worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She graciously gave two years of her time to researching, conserving and cataloging her study of the dress to enable it to be displayed and to serve as a historical document which will remain in the care of the archives in Lincolnshire.

Landi’s work revealed that the gown had been made in 1735 and had undergone several alterations as fashions changed in the 1730s and 1740s before it was eventually packed away by the family as an heirloom and family treasure.

Selecting 18th century waistcoats to go on show

Selecting 18th century waistcoats to go on show

The exhibition at The Collection includes, as well as the dress, some beautiful examples of female footwear, a stunning selection of gentlemen’s 18th century waistcoats and a number of accessories and porcelain items which serve to colour in the life of 18th century people at the time the dress would have been worn.

Despite cuts to the arts and council budgets somehow this exhibition has happened and today an excited guest list turned out for the preview before the opening tomorrow.  The exhibition remains open until 24th March. If you visit the museum you can read all about the work that’s gone into the restoration of the dress, its history and the family that kept it for so many years.

To complement the unveiling of the mantua gown there is going to be a talk by Sheila Landi on the afternoon of 7th February about the research and construction of the dress as well as the ethics of restoring historical costume. Join my Facebook page here to keep up to date with the details.

My help with this display has been limited. I have watched from afar since October 2010 as research was carried out and funding chances came and went and I have observed with some excitement as the final week has taken shape. I have been privileged to have been allowed to assist in such a hands on way with the staging of this exhibition and I hope that my knowledge of historical costume and my passion for the clothing of the period have been of use to the staff at the museum and the archives. I have been extremely thankful to have been a part of the process, even if it was only for one week.

Opening day - a small but perfectly formed exhibition

Opening day – a small but perfectly formed exhibition

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