Visitors to the open-air museum at Cultra are greeted by guides in a variety of locations, undertaking a range of daily activities and crafts - and all dressed in clothing appropriate for life in early 1900s Ulster.
This Story provides some information about how their replica costume is researched, made, and worn.
Keeping it real
All replica costume made for visitor guides at the museum is based on one of three references, in line with our stated policy of authenticity in everything we do. These are -
- A museum object in store
- A Photographic reference
- A published account or illustration
At least one, preferably all three, of these criteria must be fulfilled before any item of replica costume is created.
The museum’s extensive photographic archives are a rich resource for the study of what people actually wore as they went about their everyday lives.
For example, the loose-fitting but high waisted trousers, the buttoned waistcoats, collarless shirt, wool caps and boots as seen in this photograph from the early 1900s are all now part of daily costume for male visitor guides working in the rural part of the museum.
What’s in store
Working from the photographic archives the next step is to check the collections in-store, to decide what might be an appropriate choice for replication.
This blouse is a case in point. It represents good quality day wear or ‘Sunday Best’ dress. A similar blouse has been made for the assistant in the R.J.Sloane drapers shop at the museum, as she would have had access to the latest fashions, from a range of suppliers
Printed cotton fabrics in the early 1900s were more colourful and varied than you might expect. Photographs of the time in black and white or sepia make it hard to visualise this everyday dress in colour.This fabric sample book from 1906 gives a good idea of what was available at the time. It is consulted regularly to determine which fabrics the museum will choose today to make into replica costume for guides.
Repair, recycle, re-use
The houses in the open-air museum are filled with authentic furnishings, including patchwork bedcovers. Some of these have been made of suiting remnants , making them an ideal reference for everyday men's clothing around 1910.
In keeping with traditional thrifty practice, replica costume at Cultra is repaired and often recycled into rag rugs and other small projects. The museum has an in-house laundry and costume assistant to help with regular repairs and maintenance of period dress for guides.
The town area of the museum represents a range of small businesses from the early 1900s – a dispensary, printers, post office, hardware store, corner shop, and drapers. Not to mention several churches, a school and a public house.
Occupational dress is important in these locations, to convey roles and status. Here we can see the doctor in the dispensary, in suit, Homberg hat, white shirt and tie, while the printer in W.G.Bairds is dressed in dark clothing, with an apron and oversleeves for protection.
Where it is historically appropriate the museum occasionally acquires ready made items of costume, to assist with the interpretation of specific storylines.
Whitehill and Wilson of Paisley, in Scotland was established in 1847 and is the UK’S last remaining weaver of Paisley Shawls. The museum has a number of Paisley shawls in its permanent collection, including some believed to have been woven by this company in the late 1800s.
Using some modern examples, woven to traditional designs, enables guides to reflect aspects of textile history and the practice of handing down treasured items of dress from mother to daughter.
The traditional craft skills associated with making costume, such as knitting, dressmaking, weaving, hat trimming and embroidery are demonstrated on a regular basis by visitor guides in costume.
These skills are used to create costume and accessories for daily wear and for exhibition where originals cannot be used, for conservation reasons.
Attention to detail
The museum is fortunate to have on staff a number of highly talented and experienced heritage craft workers, including the award-winning basket maker Bob Johnston, and linen weaver Roisin Aiston.
Their workmanship, and knowledge of the museum’s collections, ensure that attention to detail in costume is observed, right down to accessories.
The baskets used by guides are made on site by Bob, based faithfully on early 1900s examples.
Made to measure
Each visitor guide at the museum has their own individual wardrobe, from hats to footwear, and everything in between. This wardrobe includes seasonal changes and specific outfits relating to key stories and activities.
In general the clothing is allocated under three main headings-
- Rural dress, and everyday wear
- Sunday Best
- Occupational dress
Increasingly, the museum uses in-house craft skills to make costume for fellow visitor guides.
Replica costume for exhibition.
This outfit replicates exactly one worn in 1911 by Brigit O’Quinn of Banda, Sligo when she toured the USA to promote Irish crafts and Dance. The original costume no longer exists but a contemporary image survives. A copy of this image, together with this replica outfit may be seen in the current exhibition ‘A Step in Time’, at the Ulster American Folk Park
The fabric for the shawl, dress and bag was woven at Cultra by tweed weaver Dianne Shaw, the outfit hand embroidered and made up by Joanne Pollock.
Behind the scenes
Behind the scenes, and out of sight to the museum’s visitors, is the small but very busy department that keeps the wardrobe for all the visitor guides up to date – the date in question being early 1900s – and in tip top condition. Working from the point of origin – the permanent collections and archives – to the point of delivery by costumed guides, involves the combined efforts of curatorial and Visitor Services staff.
The period costume ‘project’ at the museum began in 2001 as part of a Living History initiative at Cultra and has since developed into a central component of the museum’s public engagement and interpretation remit.
Period costume at Cultra allows us to carry stories and information from the collections in store and archives, to all our visitors, on a daily basis. The craft skills used to make and mend these costumes underpin our year - round programme of activities and events.
Visit the Ulster Folk Museum to experience life in early 1900s Ulster in the company of costumed guides and storytellers.