Some of the garments in the exhibition are made of elegant silk, others of rough-looking wool or rough nylon, but all have in common that they have been repaired, reshaped and reused, sometimes over the centuries.
There’s a long-sleeved vest made in late ’17you19th century and then adapted and preserved for 300 years, wedding dresses passed down from mother to daughter and updated with ingenious adjustments, even clothing that was created during WWII out of parachutes and old army blankets when fabric was rationed.
The garments are part of the Thirsty for Fashion exhibition opening at the National Trust’s Killerton House in Devon. The goal is to get people to think about how they shop for and care for clothes in this world of disposable, fast fashion.
“Recycling and reusing clothing has been commonplace throughout history,” said Shelley Tobin, costume curator at Killerton. “This exhibition raises the question: can we learn lessons from these past practices and reapply forgotten skills to care for our clothes and make them more sustainable?
“The items on display show that we need only look to history to discover ways to ensure that the clothing we buy, make and wear is durable, ethical and prevents waste.”
The exhibition begins with T-shirts emblazoned with sobering facts about clothing waste. They say 300,000 tonnes of clothing goes to landfill every year in the UK and it takes 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans.
In contrast, the highlight of the first room is a sleeved waistcoat made of silk around 1690. It was passed down through the generations and at one point the horizontal pocket flaps were replaced by more modern vertical ones. In the early 20th century it became a costume and in the 1980s someone preserved it by relining it.
Tobin said that some modern manufacturers were reusing clothing and fabrics. So in the same cabinet as the vest is a much more modern piece, a suit made in 2022 from old jeans by London fashion company ELV Denim.
Another highlight is a “makeover dress” made in 1870 and consisting of a billowing skirt that could be teamed with a modest high-necked, long-sleeved bodice for day or a more daring one for evening. “It was made of expensive material, so they wanted to get the most out of it,” Tobin said.
A feature of the exhibition is testimony from friends and volunteers from Killerton, home to the National Trust’s largest fashion collection of over 20,000 items of historic clothing and accessories, about their favorite vintage pieces.
Charlotte Eddington, for example, describes her beloved 1970s Guernsey wool sweater that she persuaded her father to pass on when it was too tight. She reminds him of camping and fishing in Northumberland when she was a child.
Sarah Parry, a gardener, tells how she wore her mother’s 1985 wedding dress when she got married last year. “It’s so floaty and frothy and ethereal,” she said. Parry added a green waistband for a modern touch. “It was very gratifying to give the dress a second life.”
A striking set of clothing on display was made during and after World War II when cloth was rationed and the government launched the ‘make and mend’ campaign. “It was very difficult to get most of the fabrics,” Tobin said. “If you could come, for example, with a parachute, you could use it.”
The show includes a nightgown made around 1943 from a nylon parachute, but Tobin’s favorite piece is a dressing gown made in the late 1940s by an Exeter woman out of leftover army blankets trimmed with beautiful green trim and a belt.
“I think it’s clever that they’ve turned it into this very elegant and durable gown,” Tobin said. “We hope the exhibition will spark discussions about whether we can learn from past practices and reapply forgotten skills to care for our clothes, and how fashion can respond to climate change, environmental concerns and the cost of living crisis.”
The exhibition will be open from February 11 to November 5, 2023.