A few things I learnt on a V&A Study Day…

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A few weeks ago, a good friend and I treated ourselves to a V and A study day on costume design for costume drama. I wasn’t sure what to expect and as the date drew nearer I did have some forebodings, fearing I might actually have signed myself up for something like hard work during my precious free time. However, what followed was actually a thoroughly pleasant way to spend a Saturday – a chance to be talked at by some real experts about something I adore.  If you’re reading this, then I’m assuming you may adore it too and so here are a few gems I’d like to share:

  1. The day began with an introduction to the costume house, COSPROP. This was set up by John Bright 50 years ago and is widely used by costume designers. It also includes a number of real costumes which date, I believe, back to the Georgian era.
  2. Several costume dramas use pieces that are actually from the era being portrayed. This is more common in earlier costume dramas due to the garments becoming more fragile with age. In Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View, Helena Bonham Carter is wearing a real Edwardian gown in the famous fainting scene.
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Image from saxonhenry.com

3. One of the most interesting talks of the day was given by John Bloomfield, who amongst other things, designed the costumes for the 1970s BBC production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. This is often held up as a hugely successful television show, which paved the way for other successful costume dramas to follow (Elizabeth R, Poldark, The Onedin Line). I’ve watched this series time and time again and never noticed how each important family had its own colour palette for their costumes – oranges, warm browns and reds for the Boleyns/Howards, Green for the Seymours and everyone else in either black and silver or black and gold.

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Image from pinterest.com

4. Each episode of The Six Wives had a budget of only £2000 for costumes. Therefore, many of the jewels that sparkle so magnificently on the costumes are actually painted bits of cardboard, screws, curtain rings, name plates and lots of PVA.

5. The costumes were designed to reflect the Tudor portraits of Hans Holbein.

6. Almost all historical costume that you see on screen begins with the underwear.  The actors and actresses do tend to wear full replica historical underwear to give their clothes the desired shape and structure.

7. Most actors and actresses are very involved in the costume design process. Their preferences and ideas about the characters they are playing are often taken largely into consideration. Jenny Beavan regaled us with stories about Vanessa Redgrave’s input on her character’s costume in Howard’s End, and how, in the end, her decisions worked for the best

8. During the final part of the day, the stage was filled with some of the designers and makers who worked on the costumes for Downton Abbey. Like many other productions, this too uses real pieces from the Edwardian era, mainly for the maids’ aprons.

9. Each Crawley sister has her own colour palette, meant to reflect the ways in which real people dress, i.e. we tend to find two or three colours that suit us and own several garments in these hues.

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Image from fanpop.com

10. For the last year, COSPROP has been working on conserving and consolidating its vast and wonderful collection of authentic historical costumes so that each one could be photographed and enjoyed by the likes of you and me on a website, which is currently underway. In the meantime, you can visit https://www.facebook.com/CostumeHeritage/ to see the updates and glimpses of what is to come.

The Foundling Museum

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The Foundling Museum, image from artfund.org

Dear Reader,

Today, inspired by Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife, I decided to pay a visit to The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, London.  This relatively small museum opened in 2004 and explores the history of the UK’s first children’s charity, the Foundling Hospital.

In 18th century London, 75% of children died before they reached their 5th birthday – this startling fact greets you as you step through the door to the first exhibition room and sets the tone for a moving experience that opens one’s eyes to why this charity (which is still in operation today in the form of   Coram) was so desperately important.

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                                  Thomas Coram                                                         Image from coram.org.uk

The Foundling hospital was first set up by a former sea captain called Thomas Coram.  Upon returning home from America, where he had been living for twenty years, he was shocked to see the terrible conditions in which London’s poorer people lived.  Most shocking of all, was the number of babies he saw being abandoned every day on the streets, on road sides and even on top of rubbish heaps.  He decided that something must be done to save these innocent children’s lives.  The problem was that, kind-hearted though he may have been, he lacked the financial means to bring his idea to fruition.  He campaigned relentlessly for seventeen years and planned strategically whom he would approach to ask for help.  The book in which he wrote this list of wealthy personages can be seen at the Foundling Museum with the names of several duchesses, dukes, countesses and so on, all written in neat little handwriting.  Important in providing substantial support for Coram was the famous artist, William Hogarth and the composer, George Frideric Handel.  Finally, in 1739, King George II granted permission for the scheme to go ahead and in 1741, the first babies were admitted to the hospital.  As a visitor, you can go into the room that mothers would have been taken to when they wanted to give their baby up to the charity.  The anguish that they must have felt and the miserable circumstances that may have brought them there; the heart-wrenching sense of their desperation seems still to hang in the air alongside the very clear understanding that this hospital was unquestionably a force for good.

Poverty, abandonment by the father, widowhood, the shame of illegitimacy and even crime were some of the reasons for why so many babies were abandoned in 18th century London.  The Foundling Hospital provided somewhere for the babies to be taken, where they would be safe.  Upon admission, every mother was questioned as to the reason for her bringing her baby there; if the reason was not deemed strong enough, then she was sent away still in possession of her baby.  If the baby was accepted, then he or she was given a number, a new name, and a token which the mother was expected to provide in case she should ever want to reclaim her child.  It would enable her to prove her identity.  This was often a scrap of fabric cut from the infant’s clothes, though in a large glass case on the wall, there can be seen several other examples of the sorts of things that parents left as tokens for their children.  This, to me, felt like the most tragic exhibit on display.  When you look at this, you get a sense of the real people who had to do this.  Some of the tokens are simple household items – thimbles, the arm of a doll, cards, a pot of rouge, coins – probably all that the mother could afford to give.  Some of them were more personalised and included pieces of jewellery or coins with one side rubbed smooth so that a message could be engraved.  These tokens suggest an intention of the parent to be reunited with their child should their circumstances ever change or at least, to let them know that they were loved.  Sadly, few children ever did see their parents again.  Most were apprenticed out when they were about nine years old – boys to the army and girls into service.  Thankfully, there are records on display of what happened to some of the children, having been taken care of, provided with adequate meals every day and medical care so that they could survive, be discharged by the hospital and make their way in the world.  In 1954, the Foundling Hospital placed their last pupil in foster care and, as I mentioned before, it remains today as a charity, continuing to help disadvantaged children in excess of the 25,000 it helped from the mid 1700s to the mid 1900s.

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‘The Foundling Restored to its Mother’ by Emma Brownlow ,     image from foundlingmuseum.org.uk

The Foundling Museum was Britain’s first public art gallery, to which artists have been donating their work in order to raise money for the cause since the 18th century.  This is still the case today, and on your visit, you can see works by Hogarth, portraits of various notable personages from the hospital’s early days, a bust of Handel, a series of sentimental Victorian oil paintings depicting scenes from foundling life and several modern installations.  One which I rather liked was called ‘Brontëan Abstracts’, by Cornelia Parker.  On the top floor, you can see items to do with George Fridreric Handel, including the will which he wrote in his own hand.

The museum is open every day apart from Mondays and costs £8.25 if you are an adult wishing to see the permanent collection, though if you are a member of the National Trust, it is worth bringing your card along as you can enter for £4.25.  It is a couple of pounds extra if you want to see the additional exhibition, which changes regularly.  I really wanted to make the most of my visit and it took me about an hour and a half to walk around.  I would thoroughly recommend this museum to anyone who is interested in historical social conditions, people’s personal stories from history, women’s history, art and of course, classical music.

For those who are interested, the web address from Coram is http://www.coram.org.uk/

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Coram logo

Undressed: A brief History of Underwear exhibition review

 

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photo from daysoutguide.co.uk

Whenever I am in the vicinity of South Kensington’s Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I always pay a visit to the Fashion department.  Even though I must have seen it at least 20 times, I still get so excited when I see those Victorian dresses stood demurely beside their masculine counterparts, those elegant but practical suits from the 1940s, and the intricately embroidered gowns from the 18th century, their silk still gleaming.  I could stare at them for hours, wondering about the lives of the people who once wore them.  So, when I saw that there was to be a new exhibition on historical underwear, I wrote the dates down in my diary and made sure I got myself a ticket and someone to drag around with me (strangely there are no fellow historical underwear enthusiasts within my circle of friends, so my ever-obliging partner came along).

The exhibition is called ‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’, and runs until Sunday 12th March 2017.  Tickets without concessions are £12 and advance booking is recommended.  The display cases contain examples of underwear from the 18th century up to the present day, when the exhibition explores the current trend for underwear as outerwear.

Through the earlier examples of female underwear, I learnt the difference between corsets and stays; stays are what women wore mainly during the 18th century when the fashionable female figure was straight and upright, with wide hips.  We are more familiar these days with the Victorian corset, which draws the waist in and produces a tantalising hourglass figure that many women still aspire to today.  What I had not realised was how different the corset was in the early part of the 19th century, when dresses for women were looser and had an empire line design.  These corsets almost reminded me of modern bras, as they were much smaller and concentrated mainly on the bust.  How strange then for fashion to become more restrictive after this with the stiff and tightly laced corsets worn by women from about the 1830s until the turn of the next century.  Two interesting x-ray pictures are displayed, showing the internal effects of the tight lacing that we associate with the 19th century.  The exhibition also looks at male underwear and my partner, for one, was surprised at how prevalent the male corset was during the 19th century.  This is what helped to create the upright, gentlemanly figure we associate so closely with such dashing heroes of 19th century literature as Mr Darcy.

The upper floor of the exhibition displays some of the racier pieces in the collection and explores how close to underwear a garment can get before it becomes indecent.  It also displays several pieces from Agent Provocateur, whom I understand are sponsoring the exhibition.  All in all, it was an informative and entertaining visit and well-worth the £12 if you are interested in historical fashion.  I always judge the success of an exhibition by asking myself if I think I have learnt anything that I could not simply have gone to a book or the internet for.  This time, the answer is certainly ‘yes’, if not for the facts, then for the experience of getting so close to such precious, interesting and rarely-seen pieces of history.