12:00pm Monday 20th February 2012
By Ruth Meech
A BRAND new costume and textiles exhibition has just opened at Dorset County Museum.
Hats to Handbags is a fantastic display of beautiful artefacts from the museum’s own collections including hats, shoes, parasols, fans and gloves, many of which are hundreds of years old and rarely seen outside the museum stores.
The exhibition is already attracting rave reviews from visitors who are fascinated by the personal nature of the items on display and what they say about the local people who used and loved them.
Most of the artefacts were donated to the museum and are now looked after by a dedicated team of specialist volunteers.
There is also a special area for trying on a range of colourful and stylish hats, which is proving popular with people of all ages. Made up of 250-plus pieces gathered from all over the county, the display illustrates how fashions adapted to keep pace with the change in women’s lives.
It is the social history of women’s fashion in shoes, bags, gloves, fans and parasols alongside room sets from different decades in the period 1750 to 1950.
The earliest purses looked like small cloth aprons and were worn under the front panel of a woman’s dress. There are also some delicately hand-beaded ‘misers’ purses’, divided in half with an end each for copper and silver, a ‘sweet bag’ and a small fabric drawstring bag beautifully decorated with the neatest, smallest hand embroidery imaginable.
Helen Sergeant, the curator for dresses and textiles, said: “The early purses come from the 16th century and the sweet bag is extremely rare, the sort of thing you would find in the V&A museum. People would fill it with herbs and tie it to their girdle and then, because the towns smelt dreadful at the time, would sniff it when they went somewhere smelly.
“We have such a wonderful collection of things at the museum and because the volunteers who put the collections together come and go, no one person knows everything we have. So it’s very exciting when we unpack the boxes and find new things.”
The fans are also fabulous – one made of pink ostrich feathers, others of thin paper bound by ivory that has been carved or decorated with ‘spangles and pin-work’.
Parasols are also a bygone accessory being celebrated in Hats to Handbags. One of the most unusual is a tiny unfolding umbrella on the end of a long, thin riding crop.
“It shows how accessories were for practical use as well as being fashion accessories,” said museum marketing manager Rachel Cole. “They were also wonderfully made with real craftsmanship, not like today when you use something, wear it out and then buy another one.
“Most of these pieces spend their time packed away so it’s lovely to get them out, otherwise no one gets to see them apart from the people who work preserving them.”
Organisers hope that Hats to Handbags will be a hit not just with the general public but also with students of fashion, textiles and social history.
There is also a hope that people will be so knocked sideways by the richness and diversity of items on show that they will join the teams of volunteers that make exhibitions such as this one popular at the museum.
Hats to Handbags is at Dorset County Museum, High West Street, Dorchester until April 14. Call 01305 262735 for details.
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