‘A Century of Style: Costume and Colour 1800 – 1899’ – Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow.

Century of Style Poster(c) Glasgow Life.

I have had the good fortune of visiting the architecturally stunning Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow on two occasions this year. The first occasion was in January with a small group of University friends and my second visit was last month to visit the above mentioned exhibition. ‘A Century of Style: Costume and Colour 1800 – 1899’, utilized Kelvingrove’s extensive 19th century costume collection, whilst telling the story of the changes in fashion in the 19th century.1  The ethos of this exhibition was to curtail the myth that the Victorians lived primarily in a world of black and white and that they actually lived in full living colour. This theme was juxtaposed against the story of 19th century Glasgow’s contribution to the clothing trade, in terms of fabric, manmade and natural dyes. 2 The exhibition was broken into nine sections based on different colours, such as purple, red, green etc., as seen in the pictures below.

Purple Panel

Information Panel, Purple Section. (c) R Sayers 2015.

Purple Dresses
         Purple Dresses. (c) R Sayers 2015.

The purple and white striped dress, pictured second from right, was so bright that it physically hurt my eyes to look at the dress. This was caused by the very vibrant (much brighter than in the picture) man made chemical dyes that were used to make the purple sections of this 1860s crinoline dress. If you look to the left of the picture, there are dresses and a jacket from the earlier 1820s to 1840s period that have used natural made dyes; the difference in twenty years of science is remarkable.3 This was explained in the above pictured text panel that was present in each section. These panels discussed the technological advances in dye manufacturing, fabric innovations and the changing fashions of the 19th century in great detail. This enabled the viewer of the panels, whom may have had little prior knowledge on this subject, engage and learn on a deeper level by reading the informative text panels. It is also worth noting that Glasgow was one of the first places to produce man made dyes; such as the famous Turkey red dye and pattern.4

Black Dress

Black Evening Gown, Merlot Larcheveque, Paris, about 1880-1882. Silk, cotton and glass. (c) R Sayers 2015.

Black Dress 1

Close up of black dress, detailing bustle draping on reverse of dress. (c) R Sayers 2015.

Each section had examples of garments and accessories made of natural and man made fabrics and dyes. One particular, literally shining example, is the above pictured dress made of black silk, cotton and thousands of hand stitched minute glass beads. The effect that this dress must have had in a ball room would have been literally dazzling; with the beads bouncing of the light from the candles or gas lights and numerous mirrors found in 19th century ballrooms. This dress was my favourite piece within the exhibition as it demonstrates the artistry of the French Couturiers in their excellence of draping and adorning fabric. It is also testament to the skills of the couturiers that this dress could be worn in the twenty-first century with little alteration to the shape or the fabric of the dress.

Red Clothes

From L-R; 1860s? Girls Dress, 1850s-1870s Boys Jacket, Soldier’s Jacket and Hunting Jacket. (c) R Sayers 2015.

I was fortunate enough to attend a tour of the exhibition given by the Rebecca Quinton, Curator of European Costume and Textiles. The tour was very informative in relation to the information given by Rebecca to the tour attendees. It was also unusual in the context of a curatorial tour as there were only four attendees, myself included, which gave the tour a much more collaborative atmosphere, as we all shared our interest in costume with one another. This enabled us to have a lively discussion of the costume on display; with one another informing each other about certain aspects of the dresses on show that we may have not had previous knowledge about. This was done alongside Rebecca Quinton’s excellent commentary on the selection, installation and interpretive processes used whilst developing the exhibition.

Particularly, Rebecca discussed the aspect of the dyeing process, most evident in the above pictured ‘Red Section’ of the exhibition. These dresses and jackets were made out of a mixture of manmade and natural dyeing processes and date from around the 1850s through to the 1870s. Rebecca Quinton also pointed out some social history details about the costumes original owners or wearers. This type of social history helps us to contextualise the person and the period that the costume was worn in. With this type of information we can gather threads of knowledge on their material culture. Thus questions such as ‘Who was the person that wore this dress?’, ‘What did they do in their lifetime?’ and ‘What event did they wear/buy this dress for?’ By addressing the material and social history of objects, Rebecca Quinton has piqued the curiosity of wide-eyed historical enthusiasts who love minute details about past lives of people. 5

Throughout the entirety of the exhibition, I took note of the display methods used for the various costumes and mannequins. The mannequins themselves were headless, as to give a timeless sense of the costume and not to be given a decade specific look. Rebecca Quinton, went onto further explain that the costumes were mounted on steam moulded body mounts to fit the individual dress. Crinolines, bustles etc. were made out of lightweight wood and unbleached cotton to support the large dresses. This enables the dress to be supported whilst minimising the risk of damage to the historical garment. Some dresses, including the red dress pictured below, where mounted on revolving 360 degrees platforms, enabling the viewer to see its dress in all of its glory.

1850s Red Dress

1850s red silk and black velvet applique tiered and frilled dress. (c) R Sayers 2015.

Conclusively, the ‘Century of Style’ exhibition has been one of my favourite dress exhibitions to date that I have visited. The imaginative interpretive and display methodologies utilized throughout the exhibition brought the dresses back to life, to stimulate and engage the 21st century viewer. The added bonus of the tour by Rebecca Quinton added a personal touch to what can often be a solitary visit to a museum exhibition. I felt that the tour was an excellent opportunity to engage with like minded costume lovers and discuss the changes in fashion in the 19th century. Overall, the exhibition was clearly laid out and explained, with attention to detail in some digital installations toward the end of the exhibition. Thus enabling even the costume connoisseur or the average museum visitor, eager to view and engage with the exhibition. Below are some more of my photographs from the exhibition.

Purple Dress 2

Detail of half-mourning dress of mauve cotton/linen with foliage design to bottom. (c) R Sayers 2015.

Blue 1860s dress

L-R: Late 1860s cerulean blue dress, 1860s blue and white floral print crinoline dress. (c) R Sayers 2015.

1830s Dress

1830s Black linen or serge wool? riding dress and jacket, with black v-shape button detail to front and puffed sleeves. (c) R Sayers 2015.



1.Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, A Century of Style: Costume and Colour 1800 -1899 to Open at Kelvingrove Museum (Glasgow Chamber of Commerce; Glasgow, 2015) <http://www.glasgowchamberofcommerce.com/news-media/member-news/2015/september/24/a-century-of-style-costume-and-colour-1800-1899-to-open-at-kelvingrove-museum/>

2. Agnes Cheska, Review: A Century of Style: Costume and Colour 1800 – 1899, Kelvingrove Art Museum and Gallery (Agnes Cheska; Glasgow Guardian, 2015) <http://glasgowguardian.co.uk/2015/10/21/review-a-century-of-style-costume-and-colour-1800-1899-kelvingrove-art-gallery-and-museum/>

3. The 1820s silhouette is recognizable for its high empire waistline that is an echo of the Regency period, ten years previous. In the 1820s large puff sleeves and a fuller skirt started to develop, the result of which is the larger sleeved jacket of the 1830s/1840s and eventually the crinoline skirt of the 1850s to 1860s period.

4. Stana Nenadic and Sally Tucket, Firms that made Turkey red – ‘Colouring the Nation: Turkey red in Scotland’ (National Museums Scotland; Edinburgh, 2014) <http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/collections-stories/art-and-design/colouring-the-nation/research/turkey-red-in-scotland/firms-that-made-turkey-red/>

5. Ariane Ruskin Battersby, Mirror, Mirror: A Social History of Fashion (Holt Rinehart & Winston; New York, 1979).

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