Wedding dress secrets revealed in costume exhibition

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Rare and beautiful dresses worn by Carlisle women are wowing visitors to the new costume gallery at Tullie House museum.

The way you dress says a lot about you, according to legend.

And that’s never been truer than right now in Carlisle. 

The stories of city women, famous and humble, and of events in history, great and small, are being told through a dazzling new display of their dresses.

The garments have been drawing visitors to a new costume gallery at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery since it opened its doors in July.

The gallery 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 see people come in and enjoy and engage with the costumes,” said Gabrielle Heffernan, who is curatorial manager at Tullie House, on Castle Street in Carlisle.

“Whenever someone goes in, they stand there and say wow!  Many of these dresses 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 Margery Jackson as a young woman.  

“It’s a bit of a mystery though, as it 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.

There is a wedding dress 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.”

One beautiful wedding dress has a story to tell, not just of Carlisle but also of world events.

It belonged to Julie Martin, who will be remembered by many as a leading teacher of secretarial skills at Carlisle Technical College.

She came from a local family, with the traditional Great Border City name Armstrong. 

Julie married Ken Martin at St James church in 1948 wearing the dress which is made from an unusual white fabric decorated with flowers visible when the light shines on it.

Julie’s daughter Judith Clarke lives in Cumwhitton and is herself a former curator of costumes at Tullie House.

She says: “It is a beautiful dress. I would have loved to have worn it to my own wedding, but I was too tall.  It is woven with shiny and matt areas so that it shimmers in the light.

“It has padded shoulders which was fashionable then and has covered buttons down the back and on the wrist. It also had a train. It is very elegant. She was a very good looking, quite beautiful young woman.  She obviously loved the dress.”

Luckily Julie wrote her autobiography for her family before she passed away in 2011, and it includes the story of the dress.

“She got the material for the dress through a former employee of the Ferguson’s works at Holme Head,” says Judith.

“She somehow managed to get fabric that was intended for export. Rationing was still very strict at that time, and she only managed to get it through the help of other people with clothing coupons. Perhaps they gave her extra coupons so she could afford it. She doesn’t say how much it cost.”

The bridesmaids’ dresses had their own wartime connection.

Chief bridesmaid was to be a friend called Mary Walker who was in Berlin working for the British Army of Occupation of the Rhine, following the end of the war.

Judith says: “She was arranging for the bridesmaid dresses to be made there and she would bring them over. 

“There was a thriving black market in Germany at the time, and she managed to get the material. But just before she could come back for the wedding there was the Berlin Blockade.”

The blockade was a notorious international crisis sparked by the Soviet Union blocking access to parts of Berlin which were under Western control, during the international occupation of Germany after World War Two.

“It meant that Mary was unable to come back, and so she sent the dresses through the diplomatic post bag,” says Judith.  “They arrived just in time on the morning of the wedding.”

Another friend stepped in as chief bridesmaid.

Julie, who was 27 when she married, had been a talented student. She had passed her exams to go to Carlisle High School but the family couldn’t afford the uniform, so she missed the opportunity. 

“She was very intelligent and exuberant and full of knowledge and life,” says Judith. 

After leaving school at 14, she worked at Carr’s factory, and then went to evening classes to learn secretarial skills and got a job as a secretary with solicitor Harry Cookson who had an office on Lonsdale Street. 

Later she moved to the technical college where she rose through the ranks to become the senior woman lecturer there.

“There will be lots of girls, now women, who will remember Mrs Martin,” says Judith.  “She was a brilliant teacher.”

Julie met Ken when she was out with friends at a Carlisle dance hall called the Cameo. Ken worked as a civil servant in the social services department based in Rufus House on Castle Street, and the couple lived in St James’s Avenue near the church where they married.

When they retired, they joined Great Corby Bowling Club which became one of their passions.

“I’m sure she would be pleased to see her dress in the new exhibition,” said Judith.  

“In itself it is a lovely, lovely dress. But then it also has this history, and associations with my mother and with life in Carlisle, and links to the war and Germany. It is quite a story.”

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