Killerton House Fashion Collection - Dresses

Updated: Oct 22, 2018

There's something ever so slightly ghostly, almost spiritual, about gently lifting the hem of a wide muslin skirt once worn by an embodied soul as it hangs in a half-dark wardrobe. Traces of personalities and life experiences remain, fleeting impressions of once real people. Spots and stains and tears, once made by lives being lived lie on muslin, silk and satin surfaces; some seeming to have become an intrinsic part of the garment over time, having darkened or enlarged. Some of the ways in which garments become tarnished by life, however, leave traces that appear to be grasping hold of the cloth, as if their letting go will finally see the related human spirit, that person who spilt their tea, or got splashed by mud, or snagged on a bramble, finally forever disappear.

I love the evocative feeling I experience when granted the privilege of peering into wardrobes or boxes, to examine garments that once swathed lithe, heavy, fleshy, slender bodies and brushed the floor around the footsteps of our ancestors.

This week I made an exciting research visit to Killerton House in Devon, see:

Click here to hear snippets of my conversation with fashion curator Shelley Tobin as she shows me some of the National Trust's exemplary Regency era pieces from the stores, such as those photographed below.

NB. the recording is presented here in the nature of an audio sketch, the sound quality is rough.

Below you can see images of some of the dresses we saw on lifting their Tyvek coverings, in my next post you'll be able to see the shoes, caps and bonnets I was allowed to handle and study.

To find Killerton's fashion online see:

Though I'd been beginning to get the impression that women lived in muslin during the Regency period we looked at some wonderful examples not only of sheer fabrics but also mixed weights, regular prints and weaves popular at the time.

For a concise background to the fabrics of the Regency I'd recommend: Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion

Then we came across this dress which I found fascinating for its papery feel...

...possibly a riding habit, designed to be protective against dirt, it is made of Nankeen...

For more about riding habits of that time see:

..."Nankeen, also called Nankeen cloth, is a kind of pale yellowish cloth, originally made at Nanjing, China from a yellow variety of cotton, but subsequently manufactured from ordinary cotton that is then dyed. Also in the plural a piece or variety of this cloth".


Nankeen Trousers - image by Mary Evans - [1], Public Domain, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=18432710

A small Spencer jacket also made from Nakeen, with the fashionable hint of military styling about its trim. For more on Spencer jackets see:

Darns, marks and stains both bring to life and personalise garments. Near the bottom of the skirt of this dress a particularly intriguing set of small marks at first glance look like burn marks forming the letter D, as if from a hot, very particularly shaped object, but may be the result of small spots having got darker and closer together over time.

To see this dress fully:

We looked at an example of Van Dyke points decorating a sleeve.

"These trims were named after Sir Anthony Van Dyke, a 17th-century Flemish painter (and popular portraitist for British royalty and the upper crust), who was known for painting elaborate V-shaped lace collars and scalloped edges on both his male and female sitters. The pointed vandyke beard was named after him".

For many more beautiful examples see:

And Shelley showed me a beautiful example of Van Dyke trim on a pelisse-robe from 1825 in 'Marriage a la Mode - Three Centuries of Wedding Dresses' a National Trust publication by herself Sarah Pepper and Margaret Willes with photography by David Garner

“The pelisse does not have a continuous front opening, like a coat, but opens three quarters of the way down at the centre front. It is made of soft oyster twilled silk, trimmed with satin rouleaux and 'Van Dyke' points that emphasise the large sleeves, puffed at the head and shoulders. Fashion has a tendency to recall historical styles, and at this period was inspired by the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Gowns such as these were often weighted at the hem with thick sheep's wool wadding to support decorative puffs and 'bouillons'. The full sleeves may have been worn over padded or whale-boned sleeve puffs to support them."

We looked at several other decorative techniques.

Shelley mentioned faggoting which I've found more on here:

To see this dress fully see:

To read more about sleeves in this period see:

On the audio you'll hear Shelley and I touching briefly on the ways in which dresses were fitted with pins, tucks and shaping. Often dresses of the time had apron fronts and were partly tied, with a more fitted back and perhaps a bustle. It was fascinating for me to learn that parts of such dresses however would have been pinned around the body whilst they were actually being worn. I now know that pins and needles of that time, as well as buttons, are an area for future potential research on my part. Shelley recommended: to this end.

Similarly you'll hear us mention Brighton Museum's fashion collection and the size of the Prince Regent's breeches: And Shelley tells me about Dorset buttons:

Whilst exploring we also looked at a piece in a vivid bright scarlet which dramatically contrasts to the muted colours often thought of in relation to Jane Austin:

And finally on the audio you'll hear us mention this young Regency lady...

...who's expression is worth a thousand words and who's dress shows nicely how buttons held things together.