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Fashion photography rejuvenates Cheshire’s vintage fashion collection 3

photo of a model with curly hair wearing a Victorian dress

Fashion from the 1800s in the collection of Grosvenor Museum. Photo Kat Hannon Photography

Curator Liz Montgomery on how modern fashion photography is exploring 20th century vintage fashion at Chester’s Grosvenor Museum and historic wedding dresses at Lion Salt Works Museum

There are 3000 pieces of clothing in the Grosvenor Museum’s Historic Costume Collection and a further 2000 pieces of jewellery, shoes, dress patterns and associated objects.

The museum started collecting clothes in earnest from the 1980s onwards and the items were all donations. At this time, the museum had an influx of civic costumes such as the now defunct ‘Javelin Men’s’ outfits as well as racing silks from the former Tarporley racecourse.

It was a time when people began to see the value of preserving old clothes and accessories that in previous decades they might have thrown out as ‘too old fashioned and ugly’.

Through the years, the Museum has accumulated not just modern items – we have some fantastic Georgian clothes such as silk scarves, hats and beautifully embroidered waistcoats – some of which are made with silver sequins and thread. One of my favourite items in the collection is also the oldest – a pale leather ‘hawking’ glove from c. 1680 with exquisite embroidery.

photo of a model wearing a long single piece dress in golden brown

1920s dress from the Curated Closet Photographic Exhibition. Photo Kat Hannon Photography

photo of a woman wearing a fur coat

1950s coat from Grosvenor Museum for its ‘Curated Closet’ exhibition. Photo Kat Hannon Photography

Rarely has second-hand and vintage clothing enjoyed such a surge in interest amongst the fashion-conscious. Some are motivated by saving the planet; others want to escape the treadmill of ‘fast fashion’ and still others just want to enjoy the freedom and variety of retro dressing.

A-list celebrities like Kim Kardashian are wearing vintage clothes and increasingly shops like Selfridges, Mulberry and Asda are opening second-hand and vintage areas within their stores.

The Museum has previously exhibited an exciting exhibition on coins, where models posed in profile, with their clothes and hair adapted to look like the profile on the coins. It was extraordinary how people were captivated by this approach.

Mention going to see a costume collection in a museum and people’s eyes may glaze over as they imagine Victorian dresses in dull cases. But give them a glossy image of a model wearing the same clothes plus some historical context and they are entranced. I call it the ‘fashion magazine’ moment when they quite literally seem to see things with different eyes’.

More than we ever think, our clothes are a reflection of the times we live in. Curated Closet’ is designed to draw attention to this link. For instance, in the late 1940s wartime thrift, ingenuity and guile were the fashion watchwords.

1940s ‘utility’ wedding dress

photo of a model wearing a white wedding dress with crescent headdress in lace

1940s wedding dress for Grosvenor Museum’s ‘Curated Closet’ exhibition taken at Stretton Mill. Photo Kat Hannon Photography

Fashion stalled in Britain in the 1940s with the wartime rationing of clothing. Initially adults were given 66 coupons per person per year but this fell to just 24 coupons for eight months in 1945-6. It is no wonder that this period is remembered as the ‘make do and mend’ years.

With a dress costing 11 coupons, you now look at a wedding dress like the 1940s ‘utility’ wedding dress (see above) in a new light. Saving clothing coupons for this dress must have been a strain on the bride as it would have completely dictated what dress could be made.

The wartime economies of this dress are only really evident when examining it from inside – it is not lined and every bit of material has been used, including the fabric’s salvage edge. The bride must have thought hard about the extra material for the long sleeves that taper into a V-shaped point at the hand and the tiny train.

But in areas where it was simply time and effort, such as in the covered buttons of the sleeves and bodice and in the figure-hugging fit, huge effort was put into making the dress stylish and memorable.

1920s dress

photo of a model with lng hair and heart shaped sunglasses wearing a lace dress

1920s wedding dress, with sunglasses, Stretton Mill. Photo Kat Hannon Photography

During the First World War women had experienced freedom through work and in the 1920s they rejected formality in favour of comfort and simplicity. Drop waists, soft lines, straight tailoring, women in the 1920s were tearing up the rule book on traditional restrictive dresses.

Many of these new fashion trends can be seen in the beautiful example of a 1920s wedding dress from the Grosvenor Museum’s collection. Note the lovely machine-made, ‘needle run lace’ that gave glamour to the simple shape of this drop waist ivory dress – a dress that was about independence and change as much as it was about simply a new trend in fashion.

The ‘jazz’ generation famously turned heads with its signature ‘flapper dress’ (eligible men post-war were in short supply so a girl needed to make an impact) and for the first time women started wearing sportswear as day wear. Women also enjoyed the freedom of bobbing their hair or even going for an androgenous Eton Crop (very short and slicked back).

photo of a young girlwearing a straw hat and green dress and white blouse

1960s girl’s dress from the Grosvenor Museum for the ‘Curated Closet’ exhibition. Photo Kat Hannon Photography

woman with long auburn hair wearing a paisley patterned blouse

1970s women’s blouse from Chester’s Grosvenor Museum. Photo Kat Hannon Photography

At Chester’s Grosvenor Museum, the exhibition features a fun fashion ‘catwalk’ with pictures and clothes displayed along with jewellery and accessories. At the award-winning Lion Salt Works Museum in Northwich, Cheshire, pictures of wedding dresses will be on display.

The glamorous shots of the wedding dresses have been taken in the evocative grounds of the Lion Salt Works and its sister West Cheshire Museum, Stretton Mill, near Chester.

Chester’s Grosvenor Museum’s ‘Curated Closet’ exhibition runs from July 24 to December 5. At the same time Lion Salt Works Museum in Northwich takes a fresh look at bridal dresses through the decades. 

More information on both exhibitions can be found at www.westcheshiremusuems.co.uk


Grosvenor Museum

Chester, Cheshire

The Grosvenor Museum was founded in 1885 and its origins are linked to the Chester Society of Natural Science Literature & Art founded by Charles Kingsley in 1871, and to Chester Archaeological Society. The Museum holds an internationally important collection of Roman Stones, found in the City walls in the…

3 comments on “Fashion photography rejuvenates Cheshire’s vintage fashion collection

  1. Dr Kate Strasdin on

    I am absolutely amazed that a museum has allowed its objects both to be worn by a contemporary body and then to be photographed outside. It is really bad practice that I thought had disappeared in the 1970s.

    It seems a particularly poorly judged decision that suggests visitors are incapable of engaging with clothing from the past unless it is animated in a modern context. If someone chooses to wear their own vintage garments from a private collection then that is their prerogative but this is a museum collection that ought to hold itself to a particular standard. So disappointing to see. And for the record I am a curator and a senior lecturer in dress history.

    • Richard Moss on

      Hello Kate, here’s a response from Cheshire Museums to your comment:

      The glamorous shots of the wedding dresses have been taken outside – in this case in the evocative grounds of the Lion Salt Works and its sister West Cheshire Museum, Stretton Mill, near Chester. A huge amount of thought went into this decision, as unlike the other dresses photographed inside for the Curated Closet exhibition, they were not from the Museum’s ‘handling collection’. Firstly, the wedding dresses were assessed as they needed to be robust enough for the photoshoot; another top priority was making sure the models knew how to correctly handle the clothes, with an emphasis on not ‘stressing’ the fabric. Here, I had the advantage of working with the models and the photographer, Kat Hannon, over an 18-month period on other projects. It was also important that during the photoshoot, the dresses were under the supervision of a curator at all times and worn for only the shortest time before being examined and carefully wrapped before being returned to storage.

      It is a controversial topic for curators whether to display clothes on the human body for which they were made for and are seen to best advantage. Some argue that it is the challenge of curators to make the clothes relevant without the need to take them out of the collection. It is a balancing act that curators all over the country weigh up on a regular basis. I see it as my role to preserve the clothes in our historic collection. However, it is also crucial to share them with a wider – and from previous experience – an appreciative audience by using this accessible but safe method to animate Cheshire West and Chester’s historic clothes collection in a modern context. I hope that visitors enjoy the Curated Closet exhibition and that future generations also get pleasure from our beautiful and newly-created photographs.

      • Veronica Isaac on

        Thank you Kate for your comment and to the museum for the reply. However I must also add my concerns to Kate’s. There will have been stress and damage on these garments – possibly irreparable damage. They were made for and worn by specific bodies. Even careful handling puts them at risk. Placing them on a body is a step far beyond this.
        I would be interested to know if textile conservators were consulted and whether condition checks were carried out before and after the shoot.
        Museums have to consider the long term preservation of objects and it is disappointing to see this responsibility being disregarded.
        There’s a lot of creativity behind this project, which could have been directed in a much more positive and respectful direction. Were replicas considered? What about the digital tools through which images of mounted dresses could be transformed and engaged with?
        I am very conscious of the pressures museums across the world are facing but it is disappointing to see short term thinking leading here.

        For reference I, like Kate, am a dressy historian and former curator.


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