Dress detective: investigating a dress and a Derry drapery

When preparing the costume mount for this beautiful ensemble for the new fashion exhibition, La Belle Époque, the Fashion Curator and I found a maker’s mark for ‘Irvine & Co’. Irvine & Co were based in Derry city, County Londonderry. The ensemble was bought at an auction in London by a previous curator. I think it’s wonderful that the ensemble has returned to the province of Ulster and found it’s forever home in the fashion collection at the Ulster Museum. The maker’s mark got me excited as such a high-quality and fashionable ensemble in the collection was made locally. I became intrigued to find out more about the ensemble and the company that made the clothing.

Image: The Irvine & Co ensemble and the maker’s label
The Irvine & Co ensemble and the maker’s label

This is what I know about the clothing! This beautiful ensemble is comprised of a day bodice and skirt made of kingfisher blue watered silk moiree. The full-length skirt has a gentle slope shape typical of the early 1890s. The day bodice has a high neck and long leg-of-mutton sleeves. The cuffs, collar edge and the triangular insert on the front of the bodice are made of Limerick lace. It has beautiful beading that has been worked, cut out and re-applied to the cuffs, neck, waist, centre front and pleats. The cuffs also have small blue silk bows made from the same fabric as the top of the leg-of-mutton sleeves. The back and front of the bodice are mirror images of each other. When examining the day bodice, we found some sweat shields stitched into the underarms. The maker’s mark on the guards was for Kleinert’s, a firm in the USA that is still operational today! These sweat shields helped to extend the life of the bodice as they prevented sweat from damaging the expensive material. They also reduced the need to wash the bodice as the guards could be removed, cleaned and reused.

Image: Kleinert’s swear guards sewn into the underarm of the day bodice
Kleinert’s swear guards sewn into the underarm of the day bodice

The ensemble also came with an evening bodice made from the same Kingfisher blue silk moiree. It has ¾ length sleeves, a square neckline and a fitted bodice. It has a fine gauze ruffle around the edge of the neck, and it has embroidery at the cuffs and in a triangular insert at the centre front. It has a 4cm band of beading that has been attached at the edge of the sleeve, around the neckline and in two rows either side of the triangular insert. The embroidery on the centre front of the bodice reminded me of jellyfish! This embroidery, along with the colour of the ensemble and the use of the watered silk moiree indicate a water or underwater theme to the clothing!

Image: Evening bodice by Irvine & Co.
Evening bodice by Irvine & Co.

After researching the ensemble, I started to investigate Irvine & Co. I discovered that Irvine & Co was located at 28-32 Ferryquay Street on the corner with Linenhall Street. The Derry Almanac and Giveen’s Almanac show that the company was located at the site since the 1870s. Indeed, the first iteration of the firm, T&J Irvine, was listed in trade directories as being located at 28 Ferryquay Street from 1876. By 1879 the trade directories had the firm ‘Irvine & Co drapers’ listed at the location. Irvine & Co expanded into 32 Ferryquay Street, and the company finally closed its doors in 1953.

Image: Irvine & Co, 28-32 Ferryquay Street, circa 1935 (DSS 6-7, Bigger & McDonald Collection, courtesy of LibrariesNI)
Irvine & Co, 28-32 Ferryquay Street, circa 1935 (DSS 6-7, Bigger & McDonald Collection, courtesy of LibrariesNI)

A valuation map from 1899 shows that Irvine & Co had tailoring and hosiery departments alongside showrooms and workrooms. This suggests that garments were made on site in the workrooms. The valuation map also depicts a carpet department, revealing that the company sold furnishings as well as clothing. It was quite common in the second half of the 19th century for drapery shops to sell a range of items including clothing and furnishings, so that customers could address multiple domestic needs in one shop.

Image: 28-32 Ferryquay Street, Valuation Map, 1899
28-32 Ferryquay Street, Valuation Map, 1899

Irvine & Co enjoyed a reputation in late 19th and early 20th century Derry for selling quality products to an elite clientele and for providing excellent customer service. An article on clothing shops in the Derry Journal on 19 December 1898 described Irvine & Co as a ‘leading local drapery warehouse’ that had a ‘first-rate reputation for superior stock… a most influential trade is carried on at Messrs Irvine’s, where the demands of customers will receive every attention.’ Newspaper adverts outline the variety of goods sold by the company. An advert in the Londonderry Standard on 2 March 1870 promoted a silk department and a range of ‘rich black silks, of the best makes.’ On 8 December 1902 the Derry Journal promoted the sale of seals, mantles and furs. The stock included caracul, Eton and three-quarter coats; fur lined capes and coats; fur ties; muffs; collarettes; travelling coats and capes; rainproof coats; paddocks; dress gowns and tea gowns. These adverts show that in addition to making clothing and furnishings on site, Irvine & Co also sold high quality fabrics, accessories and ready-made outerwear for women in a range of fashionable styles. Shop signage for Irvine & Co depicted in these 1935 photographs, promoted the shop as an ‘outfitters’, ‘tailors’, ‘costumiers’, ‘furriers’, ‘hosiers’ and ‘milliners’, reflecting the range of clothing and accessories sold by the company.

Image: Irvine & Co, 28-32 Ferryquay Street at the corner of Linenhall Street, circa 1935 (DSS 7-14, Bigger & McDonald Collection, courtesy of LibrariesNI)
Irvine & Co, 28-32 Ferryquay Street at the corner of Linenhall Street, circa 1935 (DSS 7-14, Bigger & McDonald Collection, courtesy of LibrariesNI)
Image: Side entrance to Irvine & Co, 28 Ferryquay Street and 2-4 Linenhall Street, circa 1935 (DSS 5-14, Bigger & McDonald Collection, courtesy of LibrariesNI)
Side entrance to Irvine & Co, 28 Ferryquay Street and 2-4 Linenhall Street, circa 1935 (DSS 5-14, Bigger & McDonald Collection, courtesy of LibrariesNI)

I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit more about this beautiful kingfisher blue ensemble from the 1890s and the Derry drapery shop where it was made. You can see this ensemble on display in the La Belle Époque exhibition at the Ulster Museum until December 2021.

Credit: Photographs of Irvine & Co, Bigger & McDonald Collection. Courtesy of LibrariesNI