WTM Spotlight - Costume Collection

Acknowledged as the largest costume collection of everyday wear in the UK, WTM took time out to talk to Gerry Connolly, Head of Museum and Collections in 2020 about this incredible ensemble of unique items.

Could you provide a brief overview of how this incredible collection began and who were the forces behind it?

The costume and textile collection has been developed throughout the history of the museum. The first curators, Marion Frost and Ethel Gerrard both had a very eclectic collection policy which included costume and textiles. A change in curators in the late 1940s introduced a change in collecting policy and a decision to actively collect costume as a subject area. The collection has expanded over the years, and now holds in excess of 40,000 items. A further change to the policy in the early 1970s saw a shift in focus to collecting home-made and shop bought items, everyday clothes of the 20th century.

What makes the costume collection both regionally and nationally significant?

It’s one of the largest in the country after V&A, Manchester Gallery of Costume and Bath Museum of Costume. The principal strengths of the collection are home-made and shop-bought twentieth-century fashionable wear. Rather than collecting expensive garments worn by famous people or created by celebrated designers, over more than a century WTM has accumulated a large collection of ‘everyday’ wear. WTM’s atypical collecting policy has therefore created a unique opportunity for the analysis of non-elite dress practices and the dissemination of high fashion into the wardrobes of ordinary people.

Tell us a little more about some of the items in the collection?

It consists of British clothing, accessories and ephemera, used and worn by people of all ages and social levels; couture, dressmaker made, home-made and High Street which makes it so diverse. It has some items from the late 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries including a black-work jacket from c1615. The bulk of the collection dates from 1750 with good examples of dress styles and accessories from the second half of the 18th century. The 19th century dress collection has excellent examples of dress from regency to late Victorian, including a cape worn by Queen Victoria in 1897. The 20th century collection is enhanced with a concentration on ‘make-do-and-mends’, home-made and shop bought.

Finally, how do you see the collection and the public’s engagement with that collection developing?

We are in the first phase of what will be a major redevelopment for the collection and the organisation as a whole; right now what is really exciting and will support this engagement is the creation of our costume research centre and the corresponding project with the space, Cutting Edge, I am so proud of both, these initial steps are an incredible start to the journey.