Rare and beautiful dresses worn by Carlisle women can be seen by the public for the first time, as Tullie House unveils its new costume gallery.
The gallery, which has been 18 months in the making, is one of the biggest of its kind in the north.
It showcases 300 years of clothing worn by local women including many items never previously displayed, and some of national importance.
Unusually for costume galleries, most of the dresses are accompanied by information about their owners.
“It’s wonderful to open the new Costume Gallery to the public this week, and to see people come in and enjoy and engage with the costumes,” said Gabrielle Heffernan, who is curatorial manager at Tullie House museum and art gallery in Carlisle. “Whenever someone goes in, they stand there and say wow, it’s amazing!”
Two rooms have been renovated, revealing original high ceilings and floors, to create the new gallery space and it has been filled with more than 40 costumes from the museum’s collection.
“We know our visitors love costume, but we have never had a permanent costume display or gallery,” says Gabrielle. “Some of the dresses have been out for temporary exhibitions and they have always been really popular. Many have never been seen by the public before.”
Nationally important items include a court mantua from the mid eighteenth century.
“It’s a beautiful blue dress with silvery threads,” says Gabrielle. “It is about six feet wide and quite bizarre looking – they were worn by rich women at the incredible events they went to.”
This one was owned by the Jackson family of Carlisle and may have been worn by Marjorie Jackson as a young woman.
“It’s a bit of a mystery though, as is doesn’t fit with what we know about her personality – she was known as the Carlisle Miser and for being very careful with her money,” says Gabrielle.
Other important dresses include several owned by Dorothy Howard, daughter of George Howard, the 9th Earl of Carlisle, of Naworth Castle.
“She went to Girton College Cambridge and campaigned a bit for women’s rights. We have a very beautiful pale blue arts and crafts style dress that belonged to her, which is more than 100 years old.”
Costumes are not just from the rich and famous. They include clothes worn by ordinary women, such as a lady who lived in Burgh by Sands in the mid-1800s, who seems to have had her day dress altered so she could breast-feed her baby.
A number of wedding dresses include one worn by parlour maid Margaret Pearson for her wedding in 1925 to a man who was a train driver on the Royal Scot. Among the more contemporary outfits is a ‘Cracker Packers’ uniform from McVities.
The most up-to-date exhibit is the scrubs worn by nurse Evelyn Charlotte Nakachwa as she worked through the Covid pandemic at the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle.
The stories of the wearers make the Carlisle gallery special, says Gabrielle.
“The really important thing is that we know who almost every item belonged to. It’s a real strength of the collection and not common in costume galleries.
“They aren’t just clothes, they tell the stories of people and we can link them back to the families.”
Carol Donnelly, from Faugh, a village just outside of Carlisle, was one of the exhibition’s first visitors. She said: “I’ve come into Carlisle today because I’ve been following what’s been happening and I know there’s been a lot of conservation done and that’s a wonderful thing.
“Every museum has so many items behind the scenes that they can’t show because space is always the issue. This exhibition is good because it’s getting all of these wonderful costumes out so they can be seen and appreciated by people. Seeing information around who the costumes belonged to and their backstory – that’s a lovely idea.
“Tullie House is a wonderful museum to start with – they couldn’t do more to celebrate Cumbria and the Borders. But this exhibition is more. And I’m sure I’m going to enjoy The Costume Collection very much indeed.”