Thursday 5 March 2020

Hidden Stories from a Costume Collection: Revealing Historical Treasures at Wrexham Museum, 29th February 2020

There was considerable excitement at Wrexham Museum on 29th February 2020 when people gathered for a unique occasion. The purpose of the event was to reveal some of the costumes which had been bequeathed to the museum in the 1980s but which had never been on display. Hidden Stories from a Costume Collection’ was co-organised by Professor Deborah Wynne, Wrexham Museum and the costumier and fashion designer Ruth Caswell.  The day began with Deborah interviewing Ruth about her long career as a designer and costumier, focusing on her work in Vogue and the costumes she created for the films Elizabeth, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, and Shakespeare in Love, as well as her current work running masterclasses for young students interested in a career in textiles and fashion.
Ruth Caswell being interviewed by Deborah
Ruth created the costume worn by the Duke of Anjou (above) in the film Elizabeth (1998)
Ruth made this costume worn by Eric Cantona in the film Elizabeth
The 'bird dress' designed and made by Ruth. 
This featured in Vogue in December 1971, photographed by Norman Parkinson. It was voted 'Fashion Photograph of the Year', 1971.

After the interview, Ruth opened the first storage box to reveal one of the costumes, which we named 'the governess dress'. It resembled the gowns worn by Charlotte Brontë in the 1840s. 
Photo:Wrexham Museum
As the box lid was lifted, one participant exclaimed, 'It's just like Christmas!'

Photo:Wrexham Museum
Ruth, assisted by her daughter Amy, mounted the 'governess dress' and it was brought to life.
The next garment, a late-Victorian gown with a bustle, made from a beautiful dark purple velvet, was revealed and we all were able to see the complicated structure inside the bodice. Ruth explained how the dress was constructed and, from the label, that it was made in Chester.
Ruth and Amy set about bringing this dress to life by mounting it on the dummy and showing the complexity of the details, such as the buttons and the magnificent bustle.
Photo:Wrexham Museum
This is the third dress to be revealed, and participants were able to get up close to examine the detail of the fabric and the ways in which it had been altered to fit different wearers.
Ruth was inspired by George Richmond's portrait of Charlotte Brontë depicting her wearing a ribbon at the neck of her dress. Ruth recreated this effect on the 'governess dress'.
George Richmond's portrait of Charlotte Brontë 
Ruth revealing how undergarments are important to the shape & fitting of the dress.
All three dresses displayed.

Feedback from participants was very positive. Here are a few sample comments:
  •         ‘Another inspiring and informative textile day. So many aspects in design, construction, dyes, stories. Thank you.’
  •     ‘INSPIRTIONAL! A fascinating and informative day and to see such a wonderful collection up close and with Ruth whose knowledge is phenomenal. I loved it and to have it in Wrexham. Thank you.’
  •      ‘It has been an absolute privilege today to be part of this costume story! The whole unfolded with professional grace as Ruth broke us into the subject so well – sharing the rich textile career she has enjoyed and is enjoying! Ending on the subject of the museum costumes was a perfect lead into the museum’s costume collection. It was so natural but carried us on an informed story of each dress. Thank you all!’

Ruth's masterclasses inspire a younger generation to consider careers in fashion and costume design.


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