Behind the scenes at the Museum: Handling Medical Costume

The title for this post is an amalgamation of one of my favourite novels (a text set in York, it’s by Kate Atkinson, you need to read it) and one of my recent museum projects. The purpose of this post is fundamentally the latter; I just needed to use the pun…

I’ve been behind the scenes at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds doing some curatorial volunteering (as well as helping out in the galleries and education centre; the place is so vibrant and amazing) and I found the Medical costume store! Medical items – nurse uniforms, patient gowns, restraint jackets, capes (so many capes) and much more – ranging from the early 19th Century live here. Dress and medicine, my favourite parts of history and I was able to handle them all!

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The museum is undergoing major redevelopment and to summarise, the whole of the store needs locating, auditing and transporting to a new place in the museum. I’ve been helping out with organising the costume store, from completing condition checks and placing everything in pretty numerical order. I have gained some great experience of collections management as well as coming across some really fascinating items (and battling ghosts, but that’s another story)

Out of the various nurses and midwifery uniforms the one that caught my eye was a simple straight blue dress; it has three-quarter length sleeves, one pocket and a collar that somewhat lacks in aesthetic value when compared to the traditional white collars of its day. Any ideas what this particular nurse uniform was? It’s dated from the early 1940s and the red initials on the chest state ARP.

It’s an Air Raid Precaution nurse uniform. I’m familiar with the introduction of Air Raid Protections by the government in 1935 and have come across various articles and photographs of Air Raid Wardens, yet there is a lack of scholarship on ARP nurses. tyBHVkyk.jpg

This uniform was donated from a rural location in England suggesting that its wearer was potentially a voluntary ARP nurse, assisting with the war effort if it got to the specific location.

Another aspect I found compelling was to be place the evolution, and innovation, of items past and present physically next to one another. For example, the late 19th Century patient gowns in the collection are inspired by traditional linen night dresses and are embellished with lace and frill. By the 20th century the gowns became more basic in design and could be removed easily. Fast forward to the modern gowns we know today, they are more clinical, practical and temporary. I use the term ‘temporary’ as a reflection of medical developments, namely treatment and recovery time. Early patients were more likely to be within hospitals, or bedridden, for a lengthy time. The traditional and more ‘homely’ gowns reflect aspects of domesticity and normality for the patient and medical standards. This in contrast with the later gowns as patients have speedier and less stints in hospitals as well as the constant turnovers of items such as gowns and bed sheets for patients.

The ability to place, touch and examine these three gowns together creates a better understanding of the history of medicine as well as the triggering of other ideas for future research and exhibitions.

I’ve sorted out the medical wardrobe – now its onto the medical hat collection!

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Tracing and connecting with individuals through museum objects

In connection with an upcoming historical redevelopment, the history team at York Castle Museum recently hosted a series of object “speed dating” events, which introduced the public to a range of unique pieces within the museum’s extensive collection – and only having four minutes to connect the public with the object. I was quick to accept an invitation to help out at one of these events – it was such great fun and full of really enthusiastic attendees with brilliant ideas for redevelopment.

You may think four minutes with one object may be both limiting and overwhelming for the speed dater as the object’s spokesperson had to cover historical context, relevancy to York and social history as well as ‘selling’ the object’s appeal to its audience.  However, the sessions sparked instances of passion, amazement and creativity among the visitors, as well as discussions of which stories should be included in future exhibitions at the museum and how visitors would like to see these objects to be displayed. This idea of display has various factors such as whether the object would be behind glass or actually handled by visitors and what particular aspects of the object should be promoted.

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A fan depicting a map of London, (Image courtesy or York Museums Trust)

The objects within the sessions included souvenirs and keepsakes, including as a “mermaid fish”, an 18th century fan depicting a map of London and items relative to York’s history, including the collar of an “aristocratic” dog who (along with his humans) lived at Heslington Hall, a beautiful manor house which is now part of the University of York.

An object which kindled a lot of curiosity was what first appeared as a small rectangular piece of stone – the object which I was lucky enough to pitch for! Close examination of this miniature stone revealed carvings, different messages and dates. The most clear carvings read: John Linn, 35, Bible, 1848 and the most interesting inscription of all York Castle. York Castle at this point (1848) was a prison, one of the key and most notorious Gaols of the North of England. York Castle Prison held both debtors and felons, a fact which suggests that this object was the creation of a prisoner.

 

19th century prison graffiti was common, it reflected the boredom of prisoners, their emotions and presence within Gaols, their identities etched on the stone walls. However this stone carving is unique: it is not fixed to the prison walls, it is movable and independent. The sides of the small stone are filed and smoothed to form the shape of the Holy book, the reverse side depicts the phrase “This Keep from Me.” The Stone Bible, in great and robust condition, fits in the adult hand securely: it acts as a mark of comfort, hope and religious devotion of a prisoner and their experience within the York gaol.

The intriguing nature of this object fuelled further interest into the story of John Linn, both for visitors and myself. The visitors were mesmerised by this particular object, the fact they were able to handle and read the object generated a lot of empathy and claims of aesthetic appeal for the object. The consensus was that this object should not be located behind glass – it needs to be handled and examined in order to realise and enhance this historical connection, an idea I strongly agree with.

After the session I decided to do further investigations into John Linn, hoping to understand his story and the creation of this object in more detail. Census records and prison registers reveal that Linn was a felon at York Castle; he was a considered a serious criminal and had lesser privileges than debtors who were still able to communicate with the outside world. Linn’s trial was in March 1848 at the York Assizes and his crime and charge was for the offence of Night Poaching. Linn received the maximum punishment written under the Night Poaching Act of 1828: transportation to Tasmania.

Research into Linn’s transportation journey revealed various facts. The first was that he was transported in the year 1850 and therefore spent at least two years within York Castle Prison. With this in mind I consider the Bible to be cherished, not only for his religious devotion, but as the only item of his possession and as possible acknowledgement and redemption for his crime. The second fact was that Linn was transported on the Maria Somes, an exclusive convict ship which had two main voyages to Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania – one in 1844 and 1850. Linn was one of 256 other convicts on board the ship and departed from Portsmouth. The medical journal of the ship’s physician detailed the diagnosis, progress and deaths of ill passengers. Linn was not listed, suggesting that he survived the voyage with little ill health. However Linn’s further movements in Tasmania or other areas of Australia, at present, remain unknown and I intend to do further investigation.

This miniature stone bible, whether you consider it as a keepsake, a handicraft or graffiti, is fundamentally an embodiment of Linn. It is a living record, reflecting various characteristics of Linn’s identity and life. All the information needed to discover and tell his full story are carved onto the stone; the object illuminates Linn’s presence and permanent connection with York Castle Museum.

Four minutes with an object is enough time to fuel interest in its history and significance from an audience perspective. It ignites curiosity and further research into its formation and story, revealing alternative dimensions to individual narratives and the impact of an objects creation.

How would you like to experience objects in a museum, or what aspects do you look for when you see an object on display?

 

  1. Convict Records, The Maria Somes, https://convictrecords.com.au/ships/maria-somes/1850
  2. England & Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892
  3. Medical Journal of the Maria Somes, convict ship from 1 April to 16 August 1850 by J. G. Williams, Surgeon Superintendent, during which time the ship was employed on passage to Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, The National Archives, ADM 101/255/1F
  4. Passengers in History, Maria Somes Ship Details, http://passengersinhistory.sa.gov.au/node/931167
  5. “York Museum reveals prisoner’s graffiti” The York Press, 2008: https://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/3961545.York_museum_reveals_prisoners____graffiti/

My visit to the Bronte Parsonage

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I’ve finally ticked off another ‘museum’ off my list!

However, I would not really class the Bronte Parsonage as a ‘museum’. Rather, I would consider it as simply a house, stepping back in time and into the life of a Bronte sister, their brother and their father. Renowned for their literary works, the Parsonage gives a detailed insight into their other past times including art, fashion and how they ran their household.

Located in the once sleepy hamlet of Haworth, not inhabited by hundreds of tourists a week, it is almost effortless to imagine Victorian figures walking through the cobbled street – it comes naturally, as if no time had changed. 14233704_10210467449585606_2012401731_o.jpg

I got the same feeling when I visited Anne Frank’s house in Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, – a feeling of wonder, amazement but sheer sadness.

The Bronte family experienced many devastating events and quite simply they were unlucky. Patrick Bronte, the local priest of Haworth, became a widower in 1821 a year after his wife Maria gave birth to her sixth child – daughter Anne. He witnessed all six of his children become gravely ill; his 5 daughters (Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily & Anne) contracting tuberculosis and son Branwell possibly contracting the disease but enhanced by his addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Perhaps the curse of the Bronte Family was not necessarily a curse specifically put upon the family, but rather a curse of Haworth itself. According to records from the census and local records, the mortality rate of Haworth was 25% in the Victorian period – differing with nearby Bradford and Keighley which were around 17%. CrmJg9uXEAAAYIi.jpg

I definitely sensed eeriness around the exterior of the house, the church and the graveyard – which all interconnected. The sheer size of the graveyard is a reflection of the mortality rate, clearly being a factor of the inspiration for the Gothic novels written by Charlotte and Emily. In contrast, the street of Haworth unexpectedly had a community feel despite fatality, and inside the Parsonage there is a mix of a welcoming tone with a somewhat mysterious feel.

The Parsonage felt a little isolated also, not negatively, but as if it was meant to be a beauty spot. Central and carrying grand importance. There are no neighbouring houses – but it is guarded at one side by the church and school (where Charlotte once taught and also acted as the venue of her wedding reception) and on the other the purple and brown haze of the Moors.

After purchasing the tickets from the reception leading off from the original house at the back, the entrance to the house was the original front entrance – adding to the welcoming feel. I was initially surprised at how deceptive the size of the house was from the outside as inside the rooms were very small. It was then pointed out that there were two factors for this – some rooms acted as private exhibition and store rooms, the other reason was the thick stone walls which allowed to house to look big

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Patrick Bronte’s study

ger from outside.

Through the front door I was introduced to a room on each side. To the right was Patrick Bronte’s study set up with his writing desk, piano, spectacles and at the back was his top hat!

To the left was a small living room, again holding a writing desk and range of books. I presume the three younger sisters and their brother used this room for t

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Living Room

heir own studies as they spent a majority of their days in each other’s company. This room in particular was very unnerving in a way as it contains a sofa on the far right. It is believed that the sofa was where Emily took her final breath.

Entering the kitchen I found out that Charlotte and Anne did a majority of the housework within the parsonage alongside their servant, while Emily acted as housekeeper. The three surviving sisters were taken out of school after 1825 as it is believed that the two eldest Bronte sisters contracted tuberculosis due to the poor conditions of the school. (Acting as inspiration for Lowood School and the characters in Jane Eyre)

Going up the stairs I was faced with the original grandfather clock of the house, opposite was a copy of the most famous Bronte painting – the portrait of the siblings painted by Branwell who then painted himself out, leaving a ghostly figure between two of the three sisters. images

Patrick Bronte’s bedroom was the first room off the stairs, also acting as Branwell’s room when he became extremely ill.

Charlotte’s room was dedicated to items of her clothing and pasttimes, including small figures from a dollhouse. A weird coincidence then occurred, as there is workshop and exhibiton run by historians and writers, including a writer named Jessie Burton – who’s book the Miniaturist I am reading now!

The Parsonage is celebrating a bicentenary and over the next few years each year will be dedicated to a specific Bronte – so I suspect this room will be adapted and reflect her siblings and father over time.

One of her last surviving dresses was on show in a tall glass cabinet along with her incredibly tiny shoes, long longs, parasol and one of the most beautiful fans I have ever seen! The dress is an uncanny resemblance to a dress I stand near to at the Castle Museum, known as the TB dress. Being pale and ill was considered beautiful, and the sha
pe and tone of this dress also adds to that nature. The dress extenuates the tiny waist – Charlotte standing at under 5’ with a 19inch waist.

In another cabinet was Charlotte’s wedding bonnet, laced with bcrnixmxxyaa5jxilue and yellow flowers which have kept their tone really well. An interesting fact I wasnot aware of was that Charlotte signed a document that in her death all of her possessions would return to her father and not her new husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls!

Upon entering the exhibition room I passed through Branwell’s own study – dedicated to his paintings. He was an incredibly talented artists, so lifelike!

The exhibition room contained a wide range of Bronte artefacts, from first edition publications, their artwork, family heirlooms and even the collars from the family pets! Charlotte’s writing desk and her trunk are situated in this room.

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Charlotte’s writing desk

The last part of the room was dedicated to the deaths of the family. It was a Victorian tradition to incorporate the hair of the head into items – including a bracelet made up of Emily’s hair and rings with intertwined different member’s hair. This was continued downstairs in another exhibition room opposite the reception: Charlotte Great and Small. This particular exhibition is curated by the wonderful novelist and historian, Tracy Chevalier.

In one of the glass cabinets of this exhibition there was a family template from 1824 with a lock of each members hair.

Other cabinets included small pieces of Charlotte’s work; a small piece of one of her dresses, a tiny embroidery which when you look at very carefully is encrusted with the tiniest needles ever. If you ever have a chance to view this exhibition – GO!!!!

From the final exhibition room you return to the reception and the gift shop (where I picked up a few Bronte postcards for my next wall art). I spoke to a lovely member of staff who gave me some more information on the private exhibition the Parsonage holds. I am really interested in seeing some more clothes and items of the sisters, including Charlotte’s corset and dresses by Emily and Anne – to lay each dress next to each other to imagine all three sisters together. Hopefully one day I will get a chance to go on the private tour!

Outside the Parsonage, Haworth is dedicated to all things Bthumbnail_IMG_20160905_144950.jpgronte with retro style cafes and shops incorporating the names and artwork of the family. Traditional shops still stand, including an old fashioned sweet shop, and the most amazing – the apothecary used by Branwell.

The schoolroom was unfortunately closed for restoration, however the church was open. For a really small hamlet this church is absolutely stunning and incredibly large, with the most beautiful stained glass windows on every side. I don’t particularly like taking photos of stained glass inside churches or the alters but I did take a quick photo of the Bronte plaques, one explaining their vault and the other showing the spot where Emily and Charlotte lay.

I would highly recommend visiting Haworth and the Parsonage – it really is a spectacular place.

 

‘Underwear Undressed’

Volunteering brings a lot of benefits.  Not only do I get the pleasure of getting wonderful experience in my all-time favourite museum – I get the opportunities to listen in on amazing talks by various historians and curators. For those who are unaware (although you all probably are because I talk about it all the time) I volunteer at one of my local museums, York Castle Museum.

Due to an unfortunate staff illness, I responded to an emergency ‘help’ email to assist with an event later that day and became very lucky to get the chance to listen to a wonderful talk from Susanna Cordner, an assistant curator in fashion and textiles from the V&A, London. Her talk, ‘ V&A Undressed: a brief history of underwear’ had been advertised for a few months, which I had my eye on – but being a student on summer break made it pretty impossible to part with £15. However I would like to add that this event was well worth the price! My role was a greeter, before sitting down and listening to the talk.

The topic was a great addition and combination to the Castle’s newest exhibition ‘Shaping the Body’ (If you haven’t been, you really need to) – exploring the innovations and developments of clothing items and body shapes. The exhibition itself spans a timescale of 400 years, having a variety of clothing items in its collection – from regency period dresses, 1960s versions of ‘flapper dresses’ and a dress owned by the most famous Victorian of all time…

Going back to the talk, it took place in the ‘Shaping the Body’ exhibition Hall, being a host for around 50 people.  Susanna is a fantastic orator as well as being very glam!

Unlike most historic underwear talks or research, which is normally very female orientated, Susanna incorporated elements of both genders so I learnt completely new facts and different areas of fashion. For example, corsetry was not exclusively for women – men in fact wore an item which was advertised as having a purpose away from a traditional ‘corset’. One idea is to keep the gentleman’s clothes having straight lines, another is more military centred – protecting the torso and keeping upright in uniforms. A funny fact thrown into this topic was that, although men and womens corsets were made exactly the same they were advertised with completely different names reflecting the feminine and the masculine.

Keeping the focus upon corsets, the talk also explained the sheer variety in the different types of corset. This includes the corset’s predecessor, the stays as well as different types of corset such as the ‘S’ bend and ‘maternity’ corsets. The stay and the S bend provide their intended function in their name – the stay to almost fix the flesh of the upper body in place and the ‘S bend’ explaining the shape it makes (bust out, stomach in, rear out). The latter is more of an idolised figure, used purely for advertisements or models – not practical in any way for day to day life! Regarding the maternity corset, the audience was reassured that this is not as extreme as it sounds. Unlike the stereotypical corset that comes to mind, this corset is made of two front pieces, laced, and a back piece with laced panels up the both sides. As the stomach grew, the side and front lace ties could be tied looser at the same as keeping the fitted shape.

Susanna explained the key differences between the stay and the corset – the former being made of predominately whale bone. In a previous post I explained that a corset’s original purpose was to take the weight off the heavy skirts and dresses worn by women of history. The stay did this, adding stiffness to the torso, allowing a straight posture.

Corsets are less stiff and lacks the detailed structure that stays have. In my personal opinion stays are more informal than corsets, the latter are normally more detailed and embellished, more personal and carry a distant similarity to lingerie. Susanna explained that because stays are made of whale bone they are rooted in the working class in whaling towns, which in part shows reasoning for the plain designs and lack of ‘softness’ the corset is claimed to have.

Accompanying the superb talk was an array of historic pieces from the Castle’s collection including a variety of corsetry in different sizes, lace bralets and some ‘crotchless’ pantaloon/trouser type for women (a great contraption, allowing women to go the toilet without removing the gigantic skirts, underskirts etc…) The most significant piece, for me, was a ‘stay’ dating from, I think, the 1740s-1760s. This piece was too delicate to handle but just to see the parts of this corset alongside a stay ‘busk’ was so interesting.  In regards to a ‘busk’ this is a triangular wooden carved piece – inserted into the front of one’s stay with an edge flattening the stomach in a vertical way. This made it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for the wearer to move or bend forward. The busk on display was engraved with the owner’s name and age – the girl was 17 at the time.

I would have loved to get lots of pictures, however I am always cautious of photographing exposed historical items. I’ve included photos on this post of the items within the ‘Shaping the Body’ exhibition, shielded behind glass. Similarly, Susanna included some photographs of the V&A collection in her talk, making me really tempted to book a weekend trip to London…

Victorian Highstreet…

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I blogged about the beauty of this era – I thought I may as well mention the fashion!
I am lucky enough to volunteer at a local museum – as a shop assistant in a range of replica Victorian shops. In this role I get to wear a range of different Victorian outfits – representing different class and workplace.
Like today, the Victorian society had numerous styles of fashion, however all fashions were adapted and based on a generic style. This is the idea of long sleeved blouses or shirts and hats and for women, ankle length skirts.
Different patterns were developed and exchanged by some members of society. For example the writer ‘Mrs Beeton’ put together a book named ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ which gives an overview of many aspects of Victorian life, including fashion and a series of patterns for one to make clothes.
There is a common assumption that Victorians had dark clothing, monochrome and grey shades. This is certainly true in the later days of Queen Victoria who after the death of her husband in 1861 spent the rest of her days in mourning wear. However unlike the photographs of the era which reflect all light and figures as black and white the Victorian fashions were actually a colourful array of patterns and ‘brave’ clashing ensembles. This excluded schoolchildren and those in house service (servants) who were expected to wear black accompanied by a white pinafore or apron.
Prior to the mid-1800s shopping was not a leisure activity we know today. Shopping for clothes involved going to a dress makers, also known as a Draper’s Shop. (A draper is an individual who trades in cloth and later other materials)
One would be measured for a bespoke suit or dress by the Draper, if a man, or a draper’s assistant if a woman. Lower classes would either purchase fabric or gain hand downs from other relatives or employers (if a good employer of course) and make their own clothes in their own time.
Browsing for fabrics or accessories was limited, and most products were actually hidden under the counter with the Draper choosing possible patterns or material for the customer.
1849 was the year where department stores began to surface, starting with a Newcastle company named Bainbridge’s. This was a shock to me, as I had always had in mind the department store originated from either the States or Paris (I watched too much Mr Selfridge).  Bainbridge had the evolutionary thought to give each product its own department alongside visible price tags. This began the leisure activity of shopping we know today. (Bainbridge’s still exists, under the name John Lewis)
‘Quick’ facts about Victorian fashion
  • The 1851 Great Exhibition in London inspired department stores to flourish and develop in France. (By develop, one Frenchmen made department store shopping more applicable to everyone, but creating separate reading and leisure rooms for men and children)
  • Hat etiquette gets very All Victorian men would wear hats outdoors. Those who did not would be the centre of contrasting gossip. When it came to indoor spaces, it depended on the place. Public places recommended keeping the hat on, with the exception of restaurants wuwpfgeok7oxtzzzpmtti.pnghere part of one’s routine would be to remove the hat before sitting at the table. Public speakers also took off hats, and this was to divert the attention from the hat to the words and expressions of
    that one speaking.
  • Contrasting, women wore hats as nothing more than keeping their hair out of their face and complimenting an outfit. Their hats were normally not removed due to the carefully placed hat
    pins.
  • Some employers were good, others were not. If the latter young girls and apprenti
    ces may not receive any wage whatsoever for their work –
    especially in the clothes
    industry. Good employers would support other issues (however this may be to advertise and promote their business) – for example some Draper’s would set change their window displays to the outfits of Suffragettes – promoting their cause while stocking the relevant coloured fabrics (Purple and Green)
  • Corsets automatically bring to mind their purpose in gaining that perfect silhouette shape in the waist. As ‘beauty’ developed into a war of personal vanity this became the main reason for a corset. However the original purpose of a corset was to take the weight of the top of the heavy and durable skirts. Victorian skirts were usually made of a wool or felt type material, which, along with the lining made the item extremely heavy. Corsets would take part of this weight and forcing the woman to having a strong straight back to keep upright.

 

 

The top two images represent the fashions of the middle class. In an attempt to look the part and present oneself as a having a high social standard working class women who had jobs such as Drapers Assistants would wear similar styles. On one hand it was used as advertisement of that working establishment, on the other women had more confident and given more respect dressing in this way.
The bottom images are a reflection of the working class or casual wear in society. White blouses were a must for all workplaces along with small straw hats which for women were worn at all times.

 

The ‘New Look’ Exhibition

 

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I recently came across some photos I had taken before I had started blogging.

The photos had been taken at a fashion exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

On the same visit I had also paid to enter a limited Wedding exhibition, which was totally worth the money (I think it was about £9 with my student discount) and had a range of wedding items from the 18th Century to modern day, including accessories from Queen Elizabeth’s wedding party (pressed flowers from the bridesmaid headdresses) and actual dresses loaned from celebrity weddings. (Dita Von Teese’s wedding dress was there!!!)

The V&A do the most amazing exhibitions, but because of the expensive nature of getting to London, I am quite limited in getting to go 😦 (I BLAME YOU RAIL TRAVEL)

This one was a time travel through the age of fashion, from popular fashion to the start of fashion brands we have come to love.

 

New age of fashion

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Vintage Vogue

The ‘New Look’

My most favourite part of the exhibition was being so close to a range of Dior items – just look how beautiful this whole outfit is. I love the very feminine shade of pink and the simplistic but effective use of accessories. The black pointed kitten heel adds statement to the outfit – notice how this same style of shoe is now working its way back in modern day fashion…

This part of the exhibition was in celebration of the 1947 marking of Dior’s self named ‘Golden Age’.

From seeing the outfit above it makes sense in being a celebration of the end of the war and a new beginning, highlighted by the bright eye catching shade of the material. Still the look still retained the modest style of the time – developing the long lengths into a more ‘floaty’ and youthful look.

Fashion by Dior was the stimulus for what is more commonly associated with Dior: make up and perfume.

Originally, the sheer amount of material needed to create the garments of the ‘Couture’ collection caused disapproval, especially in London. This was down to the country still under the order of rationing. It gained respect after the secret presentations of the New Look to the Royal Family, where Princess Margaret in particular took interest. She adopted the look, and as she was considered a fashion icon at the time, London and the rest of the country adopted it! Sources claim that George V had forbid the two princesses in adopting the New Look in fear of setting a bad example because of rationing still in place. Princess Margaret, the more free spirited of the two obviously won her father round!

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