Second Skin in Totnes, Devon

PUBLISHED: 16:11 17 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:10 20 February 2013

Second Skin in Totnes, Devon

Second Skin in Totnes, Devon

Totnes in is home to one of the country's largest and most important private costume collections. Kate Strasdin traces its Devon origins

The ancient borough of Totnes is known for its winding streets and historic buildings At the top of the High Street, in one of the oldest Tudor houses of the town and behind the wooden-pillared portico of the Butterwalk, is one of the countrys largest and most important private costume collections,

Bogan House is the permanent home to many thousands of items of textiles and dress dating from the 18th-20th centuries. Founded in 1967, the origins of the collection are literally theatrical. The late Peter Clapham, through his connections with the stage, had been given many original garments over the years to augment the Dartington Playgoers wardrobe department. Recalling this period of acquisition, he wrote in 1978: These charming relics of former times were only occasionally suited for this purpose by reason of the fragile nature of the materials, the rather small fittings or the delicacy of pattern and colour which was unable to stand up to strong stage lighting. This resulted, of course, in the costumes many of them fine examples of their particular period being packed away unused.

Peter felt strongly that these objects were too important to lie hidden away. He approached two of his friends and theatre colleagues, Paula Morel and Annette Kok, with the beginnings of an idea to bring together a parade of costumes to a wider audience. Their hard work and inspiration succeeded. The parades became so popular that they came to the attention of the BBC who featured them in two TV programmes of the 1970s. Collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum followed, by which time, due to popular demand, the search was underway for premises to make permanent displays possible.

By 1986, the collection had found its way to Bogan House, a suitably period setting for the many beautiful exhibitions to follow. Donations of garments continued to pour in, and to this day the curators welcome suitable additions to the stores, especially if the objects have a strong Devon provenance.

Now in its 36th year of annual displays, the museum is preparing to unveil the 2010 show, Fashions for Festivals, featuring scenes of celebration from the early 19th century to the late 20th century. Under the direction of Honorary Curator Julia Fox, the expert eye of Valerie Oatley, and a team of willing volunteers, the winter months of every year are spent in preparation: choosing garments, ensuring that they are suitable for display, mounting clothes onto mannequins and adding the contextual details of accessories, paintings and props that make each years exhibition fresh and unique.

Additionally, the team spend their time on the hidden work of small museums: offering research opportunities to students, education experiences for schoolchildren, outreach work to the wider community, and specific projects such as Costume Conversations, an oral history initiative recording invaluable recollections of local people and their clothing memories.

It has been said before that one of the most magical qualities of historic dress lies in its proximity to people of the past the second skin of the person who has worn it and, therefore, the closest link to our ancestors.

Beauty in silks, satins and chiffons

Across three exhibition areas visitors can enjoy each garment in detail; such as the blue-corded silk wedding dress worn in Plympton in 1872, set amongst an array of Easter bonnets dating from the 1840s to the 1980s. The display moves on to an early 19th-century Mayday, maypole and all, around which young women and girls in white dance in centuries-old tradition. One of the most attractive garments in this scene is the cream silk dress trimmed with lace and worn with a yellow silk spencer, the short jacket that was at the height of its popularity during this period. A spring wedding of the Edwardian era highlights at its centre a cream satin gown decorated with pleated chiffon and bands of ribbon. Printed chiffon gowns for ladies attending Ascot in the 1930s form the next group, afternoon dress being by this date appropriate for garden parties, regattas and weddings as well as race meetings.

A tableau of the Chelsea Arts Ball gathers together fancy dress from several periods including an Edwardian fancy dress made from an embroidered Chinese robe. In contrast the adjacent grouping represents a rural celebration of the harvest festival in the middle of the 19th century. The farmers wife is dressed in her best cotton printed skirt and white blouse.

The second room concludes with a classic Victorian Christmas, featuring the widest of crinolines and vivid hues. In a shower of colour, the exhibition rounds off with a New Years Eve party featuring costume that spans the 20th century, including a 1972 Zandra Rhodes printed chiffon dress, decorated with rhinestones, beadwork, ribbon and silver shell flowers.

On the ground floor of the building, visitors can browse through items for sale in the museum shop and can purchase the wares of local crafts people featured in themed window displays. The brainchild of one of the museums volunteers, Lin Simonon, the display changes each month through the season.

The exhibition can only remain open each year thanks to the support of the volunteer stewards who give up part of their free time each week to open the doors and welcome visitors into the panelled rooms of the 16th-century building. This years show more than lives up to the standards that regular visitors have come to expect of the annual displays here. For those who have yet to discover its joys, it is a hidden gem in the heart of old Totnes.

Fashions for Festivals runs from 31 May until the end of September. Open Tuesday-Friday, 11am-5pm. Guided tours are available outside these hours and in October by appointment.

Latest from the Devon Life