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Period Costume at The Ulster Folk Museum

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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

Keeping it real

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Archival resources

Archival resources

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What’s in store

What’s in store

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Fashionable fabrics

Fashionable fabrics

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Repair, recycle, re-use

Repair, recycle, re-use

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Occupational dress

Occupational dress

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Telling yarns

Telling yarns

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Making history

Making history

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Attention to detail

Attention to detail

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Made to measure

Made to measure

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Replica costume for exhibition

Replica costume for exhibition

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Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes

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Keeping it real

Image: The Drennan sisters, Bryansford, Co. Down, around 1910. HOYFM.WAG.281  © National Museums Northern Ireland
The Drennan sisters, Bryansford, Co. Down, around 1910. HOYFM.WAG.281 © National Museums Northern Ireland

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.

Archival resources

Image: A scene in rural Fermanagh, around 1910. HOYFM.WAG.1924 © National Museums Northern Ireland
A scene in rural Fermanagh, around 1910. HOYFM.WAG.1924 © National Museums Northern Ireland

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

Hand embroidered cotton blouse, c1910. HOYFM.2012.296
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Hand embroidered cotton blouse, c1910. HOYFM.2012.296 © National Museums Northern Ireland
At the counter, in R.J.Sloane, Draper and Outfitters, Ulster 
Folk Museum. © National Museums Northern Ireland
At the counter, in R.J.Sloane, Draper and Outfitters, Ulster Folk Museum. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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

Fashionable fabrics

Image: Fabric sample book, 1906.  Dress weight printed cottons. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Fabric sample book, 1906. Dress weight printed cottons. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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

Interior of Tea Lane House, showing wool patchwork bedcover. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Interior of Tea Lane House, showing wool patchwork bedcover. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Detail of patchwork bedcover early 1900s. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Detail of patchwork bedcover early 1900s. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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.

Occupational dress

Doctor Martin, Ballycultra Dispensary. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Doctor Martin, Ballycultra Dispensary. © National Museums Northern Ireland
The printer at W & G Baird print workshop. © National Museums Northern Ireland
The printer at W & G Baird print workshop. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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.

Telling yarns

Paisley shawl c 1860. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Paisley shawl c 1860. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Paisley shawl, Whitehill and Wilson, Paisley, 2001. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Paisley shawl, Whitehill and Wilson, Paisley, 2001. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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.

Making history

Joanne Pollock, trimming hats in the Dressmaker’s house. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Joanne Pollock, trimming hats in the Dressmaker’s house. © National Museums Northern Ireland
 A ‘Sunday Best’ hat inthe window of Cooper's hat shop, the tram gallery, Ulster Transport Museum. © National Museums Northern Ireland
A ‘Sunday Best’ hat inthe window of Cooper's hat shop, the tram gallery, Ulster Transport Museum. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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

Image: Bob Johnston, basket maker. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Bob Johnston, basket maker. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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.

Image: Roisin Aiston, linen weaver. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Roisin Aiston, linen weaver. © National Museums Northern Ireland

The baskets used by guides are made on site by Bob, based faithfully on early 1900s examples.

Made to measure

A waistcoat  made of tweed handwoven in the museum. © National Museums Northern Ireland
A waistcoat made of tweed handwoven in the museum. © National Museums Northern Ireland
A crochet shawl, a close copy on an original ‘hug me tight’ style in the museum collection. © National Museums Northern Ireland
A crochet shawl, a close copy on an original ‘hug me tight’ style in the museum collection. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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.

Dress, shawl and bag of handwoven tweed.  Made in 2014. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Dress, shawl and bag of handwoven tweed. Made in 2014. © National Museums Northern Ireland
A detail of hand embroidery, in the Celtic knotwork 
Style. © National Museums Northern Ireland
A detail of hand embroidery, in the Celtic knotwork Style. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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

Image: Joanne Pollock at work in the period costume workroom, making a replica of a 1760s dress in the UFM collection, complete with corset and petticoat. © National Museums Northern Ireland
Joanne Pollock at work in the period costume workroom, making a replica of a 1760s dress in the UFM collection, complete with corset and petticoat. © National Museums Northern Ireland

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.