Above: Killerton House © National Trust - Malcom Jarvis
The costume collection at Killerton House holds the National Trust’s largest dress collection, containing over 20,000 items of dress, accessories, textiles, books, photographs and dolls, dating from 1690 to the 1970s. Even though this collection is not directly linked to Killerton or the family who lived there, its existence is the result of one enterprising woman who saw the historic value of these items.
The Killerton estate, situated near Exeter in Devon, has been in the care of the National Trust since 1944, when Sir Richard Acland transferred 6,388 acres, including more than twenty farms, the eighteenth century house, gardens and parkland to the charity. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the Trust considered opening the house to the public.
The Trust decided to redecorate Killerton with the help of Sir Richard and Lady Acland by adding family furniture and portraits to the collections already in the house to give the impression of a pre-war interior that would have been lived in by the Aclands. Having restored the ground floor of the house, the Trust were then offered a collection of historic costume. This collection had no connection with Killerton or the Acland family but had its origins in Oxfordshire. The collector of the costume, a Mrs Paulise Lugg, had left a letter in her will for her friend, Atherton Harrison, a lecturer on the history of dress and an ex-theatre designer, asking her to find a suitable home for the collection. Two years after the death of Paulise, in 1977, approximately 700 costumes and accessories arrived at Killerton to become the core of the National Trust’s largest dress collection. With the collection came its first curator, Atherton Harrison. Atherton had first met Paulise in the 1960s when she visited her village to talk to the local WI about the costume collection.
Paulise de Bush was the only daughter of William Ernest Bush (1861-1903) and his American, opera singer wife Clara Pauline Joran (1870-1954). William died in 1903 after falling in front of a train and Paulise, aged only three, inherited her father’s title, becoming known as 'The Baby Baroness'. Growing up, Paulise developed an avid interest in the theatre and met her husband, the director Herbert Lugg, through the Oxford Playhouse. The couple married in 1933 founded the Stockwell Players in 1935.
Paulise amassed a vast collection of costumes for her theatre wardrobe and she told Atherton the shocking story of how she came about acquiring the collection of original period costumes during the Second World War. Whilst walking past an old house in the village of Aston Tirrold, Paulise was surprised to see a woman throwing items of costume out of the window and onto a bonfire below. Paulise called out 'Oh, if you have any costumes you don't want, please remember our drama group, because with clothes rationing we can't buy any materials for the costumes in our plays'. The woman explained to Paulise that she was staying in the house, called Filberts, with her uncle, Victor Ainger, to escape the bombing in London. The Aingers were an old Berkshire family and it appeared that nothing had been thrown away since the family first occupied the eighteenth-century house, and that was why Ainger’s niece, Audrey Deacon, was trying to dispose of things on the bonfire.
Paulise gradually purchased the whole collection of mainly eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century dresses from Filberts. These were then placed with others in the theatre wardrobe, but mainly remained unaltered and unworn. Atherton advised Paulise to take them out of the theatrical wardrobe 'as she had the beginnings of a very fine collection of period costume'.
Paulise’s enthusiasm for historic costume grew and she began to take collecting seriously. It wasn’t until the collection arrived at Killerton that it was properly catalogued. Over the decades many more items have been acquired or donated to the collection at Killerton and many of these can be seen on the National Trust’s Collections website (www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk).
Every year a new costume exhibition is produced by Costume Curator Shelley Tobin and Assistant to the Costume Curator, Charlotte Eddington, exploring different themes and periods of fashion and textile history. Previous exhibitions include, The F-Word: The changing language of fashion, Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote and Tree of Life. The annual costume exhibition is displayed across eight rooms on the first floor of the 18th century house. Unfortunately, it is not fully accessible as it is located up a flight of stairs but disabled visitors are able to watch a slideshow of photographic highlights from the exhibition on a tablet.
The 2020 exhibition is titled Active minds and busy bodies and explores how fashion has changed and adapted over time as the activities enjoyed by the aristocracy on British country estates have spread out into wider society. For some of these activities, clothing remains quite traditional while other sportswear now combines cutting edge technology and high fashion. The ‘healthy country life’ and a love of outdoor sports was seen as typically English and people dressed accordingly in appropriate clothing produced by tailors and specialist outfitters. The exhibition includes examples of historic clothing that would have been worn for a wide variety of activities, including tennis, golf, cricket, swimming and dancing. There is also a display of a number of needlework tools and sewing boxes from Killerton’s collection as needlework was a useful and a creative distraction during long, often solitary hours in the country.
The exhibition features a display by internationally recognised rugmaker, Heather Ritchie, which allows visitors to get hands on with the exhibition by learning about the craft of rag rugging and contributing to the Killerton rag rug. Visitors (young and old!) are also able to dress up in a selection of fancy dress costumes before choosing a script and taking to the stage to enact a play, a traditional form of entertainment in country houses.
Killerton House’s costume exhibition for 2020 may be small in size but it is wonderfully curated around a theme that is often overlooked in historic dress.
Please note that the Costume Exhibition is currently closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. Please check Killerton’s website for up-to-date information before attempting to visit the exhibition.
Opening times – Monday – Sunday, 11pm – 4pm (due to COVID-19 restrictions only the ground floor of the house is currently open from 1pm – 4pm).
Address: Killerton House, Broadclyst, Exeter Devon, EX5 3LE
Entry Price: National Trust members are free, non-member adults (aged 18+) are £10.00 and non-member children (aged 5-17) are £5.00. A non-member family (2 adults and max 3 children) is £25.00. Timed tickets need to be booked online or by calling 0344 249 1895 by 3pm the day before your visit.
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Victoria Haddock graduated with a BA (Honours) History degree from the Open University in 2016, before undertaking a Masters degree in the History of Design and Material Culture from the University of Brighton, graduating with a Merit in 2019. Victoria’s dissertation focused on the topic of fashion tie-ins inspired by film costumes during the 1930s. She currently works as a Freelance Collections Care Curator for Zenzie Tinker Conservation, working on the Royal Courts of Justice Legal Dress Collection, and has previously worked for the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, and the National Trust’s Killerton House. Victoria has also been volunteering with the Costume/Textile collections at Killerton and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum for a number of years.