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A Fashion Story Unfolds – The Balfour Clark Donation

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One of the most exciting elements of my work with the Ulster Museum’s Fashion Collection is handing donations and uncovering the fascinating stories attached to them. Recently I was lucky enough to get to bring one of the most extraordinary outfits that has ever been gifted to the museum into our permanent collection. I am going to share a little bit of its story here today.

Early one morning last April, I found myself driving to Kilkenny to meet a donor who had emailed about a potential gift. They had heard that the Ulster Museum makes a point of collecting and exhibiting fashionable dress, and felt that she could have something that may be of interest.

You never really know what you might see when you make a ‘house call’ as a curator. I’m no longer surprised at being surprised, but I know, even at this early stage in my career, that what I had the privilege to see that day was truly exceptional.

I arrived at her home around lunchtime and, after initial greetings and chitchat, the donor led me upstairs to a bedroom with a large chest of drawers. Reaching with both arms into a drawer, she hoisted up a heavy bundle of fabric, which she then carefully laid on a nearby bed. It was obvious that unfurling this bundle would be a two person job. Together we got to work spreading it out, unfolding the piece once, twice, again, and then again – it kept going. Finally fully opened up, the fabric now spilled from the very top of the bed, far beyond the end of the mattress and down onto the floor.

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Minding not to trip on the overflow of fabric, I finally took a step back and saw in front of me over eleven feet of gorgeous cream silk, embellished all over with huge art nouveau swirls of beading and adorned with purple and silver gauzy flowers. The lining, a perilously delicate bright green chiffon, peeked out here and there at the edges. Although she had of course seen it all before, the donor and I both felt the need to stop for a minute to take it all in.

It was hard to believe that such an immensity of fabric could actually be worn by one woman, but from the black and white photograph of her great grandmother that the donor had emailed me previously, I knew it was so.

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In 1911 the donor’s great grandmother Elizabeth Balfour Clark wore this garment as a train, attached at the shoulders to a delicate white dress of Brussels lace Irish crochet. That year, Elizabeth was one of a select group of society ladies invited to be presented to Queen Mary in Dublin Castle during what turned out to be the last Royal visit to Ireland for a century. To be presented at court, Royal dress code demanded she wear a white dress with a train of a certain length. Clearly, Elizabeth was determined not to disappoint.

A woven label inside bodice reveals that the dress itself was made by a Madame Léonie Duboc. Madame Duboc was a favourite dressmaker of Queen Maud of Norway and up until now, the latest known surviving gown made by Madame Duboc was a ‘going away’ outfit made for Queen Maud in 1896, kept in the National Museum of Oslo. Therefore Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s court presentation outfit, now part of the Ulster Museum collection, is not just a wonderful example of Edwardian fashion, but truly adds a few more lines to fashion history.

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Elizabeth’s court presentation dress and train will hopefully be put on display in the next fashion exhibition at the Ulster Museum, ‘La Belle Époque.’ I look forward to being reunited with this magnificent piece soon, and sharing it with staff and the public when we reopen.