Some garments in the exhibition are made of elegant silk, others of rough-looking wool or scratchy nylon – but what they all have in common is that they have been repaired, remodeled and reused, sometimes over centuries.
A long sleeve cardigan was made in the late 17Tth century and then modified and preserved for 300 years, wedding dresses passed down from mother to daughter and updated with clever alterations, even clothes made from parachutes and old army blankets during World War II when fabric was rationed.
The garments are part of the Thirsty for Fashion exhibition opening at the National Trust’s Killerton House in Devon. The aim is to make people think about how they buy and care for clothes in this fast-fashion disposable world.
“Recycling and repurposing clothing has been commonplace throughout history,” says Shelley Tobin, the costume curator at Killerton. “This exhibition asks the question: Can we learn from these past practices and re-apply forgotten skills to care for our clothes and make them more sustainable?
“The exhibits on display show that we only need to look to history to discover ways to ensure that the clothes we buy, make and wear are sustainable, ethical and prevent waste.”
The exhibition starts with T-shirts with sobering facts about clothing waste. They say that 300,000 tonnes of clothes end up in landfill every year in the UK and it takes 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans.
The highlight of the first room, on the other hand, is a vest with silk sleeves circa 1690. It was passed down through the generations and at some point the horizontal pocket flaps were replaced by more fashionable vertical ones. In the early 1900s it was turned into a fancy dress costume and in the 1980s someone preserved it by reupholstering it.
Tobin said some modern makers reused clothing and fabrics. So in the same closet as the waistcoat is a much more modern piece, a suit made in 2022 from old jeans by the London fashion company ELV Denim.
Another highlight is a “transformation dress” created in 1870 and consisting of a billowing skirt that can be paired with a modest, high-cut, long-sleeved bodice for daytime or a bolder bodice for evening. “It was made of expensive material, so they wanted to get as much use out of it as possible,” Tobin said.
A feature of the exhibition is the testimony of friends and volunteers from Killerton – home to the National Trust’s largest fashion collection of over 20,000 period garments and accessories – about their favorite vintage pieces.
For example, Charlotte Eddington describes her beloved 1970s Guernsey wool sweater that she persuaded her father to give to her when it got too tight for him. It reminds her of camping and fishing in Northumberland as a child.
Sarah Parry, a gardener, tells how she wore her mother’s 1985 wedding dress when she got married last year. “It’s so floaty and frothy and ethereal,” she said. Parry added a green waistband for a modern twist. “It was so satisfying to give the dress a second life.”
A striking set of garments were created during and after World War II, when fabric was rationed and the government launched the ‘make do and mend’ campaign. “It was very difficult to get hold of most of the fabrics,” Tobin said. “If you could get by, say a parachute, you could use it.”
The show includes a nightgown made from a nylon parachute circa 1943 – but Tobin’s favorite piece is a dressing gown made by an Exeter woman from surplus army blankets in the late 1940s, brightened up with a beautiful green trim and belt.
“I think it’s ingenious that she made this very elegant and durable robe,” said Tobin. “We hope the exhibition will spark discussions about whether we can learn from past practices and re-apply forgotten skills to care for our clothes, and how fashion can respond to the changing climate, environmental challenges and crisis of the cost of living.”
The exhibition runs from February 11 to November 5, 2023.