Practicality or a Flight of Fancy? - Beetles, Feathers and Furs

Practicality or a Flight of  Fancy? - Beetles, Feathers  and Furs

Saturday 03 October 2015

The use of animal products in dress and costume is an enormous subject which can be studied from many different viewpoints. There is probably no culture that has not used skins and feathers for practical reasons or for decorative purposes. Our four speakers approach the subject from very different angles according to their specialism whether conservation, social hierarchy, photographic history or historical interpretation.

We start the day with Zenzie Tinker: Beetle wings and Crochet loops: the re-conservation of Ellen Terry’s Beetle Wing dress

Over a three year period the iconic Lady Macbeth Beetle Wing Dress from Smallhythe Place was painstakingly investigated, conserved and redisplayed for the National Trust by the Brighton based studio, Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd. Made famous the world over by Singer Sargent’s beautiful portrait of the actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, the unusual crocheted and knitted construction of the theatrical costume gave the conservators many challenges. Zenzie Tinker will present the main issues faced by the conservation team; how they were able to use contemporary photographs and the painting to guide their re-assessment of the much repaired and altered dress, how they repaired and supported the fragile crochet skirt and brittle beetle wings and how they re-constructed and displayed the dress to more accurately echo the Singer Sargent portrait.

Zenzie has been a textile conservator for 30 years, working for the Museum of London, the Victoria & Albert Museum before setting up her own conservation studio in Brighton where she leads a team of six conservators. The studio has developed particular skills in dealing with large scale, complex projects such as state beds and wall hangings as well as costume. Zenzie has a particular interest in working with past adhesive treated textiles and the challenges of conserving and displaying historic costume.

Our next speaker is known to many members

Dr. Joanna Marschner: A waving field of feathers. Dressing the head for presentation at the English Court, 1700-1939

‘No lady was without her plume, the whole was a waving field of feathers’ wrote Richard Rush, Envoy Extraordinary and minister Plenipotentiary from the United States of America in the early eighteenth century. ‘Ostrich feathers will be worn on the head’ the Lord Chamberlain declared in the 1937 edition of ‘Dress and Insignia worn at Court’. This lecture will consider these statements, made almost a century and a half apart and discuss show how a small, even simple accessory, can be lifted out of its fashionable context to become an important symbol of a social system which prevailed in Great Britain between the early eighteenth and mid twentieth centuries.

Joanna is senior curator at The Historic Royal Palaces and she has written extensively on royal wardrobes. Her recent publication in 2014 is Queen Caroline: Cultural Politics at the Early Eighteenth-century Court. Previous publications include Diana: Fashion and Style and Royal Wedding Dresses from the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace. We are privileged to be able to hear about her most recent research on the astonishing feather headdresses of the Royal Court.

From the drama of the stage and the Royal Court our next speaker will take us to the dress of the humbler sort.

Jayne Shrimpton: Following Fashion: Feathers and Furs in Family Photographs, 1860-1950

Prestigious studio photographs of the wealthy and famous are frequently used to illustrate high-end fashions of the 19th and 20th centuries. In contrast to these elite images, we study a selection of largely-unpublished private photographs portraying individuals and groups from diverse social backgrounds. In particular, we examine how ordinary working people, as well as more prosperous family members followed prevailing dress trends by wearing feathered millinery, fur garments and accessories. The emphasis is on female styles, but men make a brief appearance too!

Following her MA degree in the History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Jayne worked as an Archive Assistant at the National Portrait Gallery, London during the 1990s. For around twenty years she has been a freelance consultant, writer and speaker, dating and analysing family photographs and artworks, giving illustrated presentations and running courses for special interest groups and societies, museums, archives and libraries. She also researches photographs for the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are?, works with the genealogy companies Findmypast and Genes Reunited and is the author of seven family picture and fashion history books. Website:

To conclude the day we will hear of the painstaking research which informs the creation of dress for the interpreters at Hampton Court Palace.

Caroline Johnson: Pampilion, poots and purfles: furs in the Henrician Great Wardrobe accounts.

This talk will link the records of what furs were used for clothing issued by the Great Wardrobe (ie for the royal family and their servants at court) with contemporary images of various sorts: effigies, brasses, portraits, etc. and with information about the animals which yielded the furs and how the living creatures related to the finished pelts. The Great Wardrobe documents provide a good overview of which furs were assigned to which ranks, how fashions in fur changed over the decades, which furs were teamed together and with what fabrics, and where fur appeared on various garments. The source documents for this talk are warrants and account books dating between 1495 and 1520, from Henry VII and early Henry VIII.

Caroline’s researches into the Great Wardrobe documents arose at first from the need to dress the historical interpreters employed by JMD&Co at Hampton Court Palace, and the desire to provide sets of clothing exactly appropriate for the particular servants being represented. The book which arose from this research was The Queen’s Servants: A Tudor Tailor Case Study. Since JMD&Co left the Palace, she has become part of the Tudor Tailor team, which continues to research, reconstruct and publish on 16th century clothing.

The report on this event is included in the Autumn 2015 issue of WECS Wardrobe.

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