On 11th November 1976 the entire collection of costume and textiles held by the Ulster Museum was completely lost in a fire following the bombing of the collection’s store at Malone House, on the outskirts of the city.
The collection included many items of historical importance. One of the best known items was an Elizabethan woman’s embroidered jacket from around 1600. However, the most tragic loss was the linen damask collection which was ranked the best in the world after that of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Also destroyed was a fine collection of eighteenth-century costume, the collection of Irish lace, Irish and international embroidery, fans, domestic textiles, quilts, toys, dolls, sewing tools, fashion plates, and accessories. In total, over 10,000 specimens were lost.
In a statement released at the time the Museum Director, Alan Warhurst, commented, ‘Apart from the irretrievable loss of the historical evidence of our culture one of the saddest features of the disaster is that more than any other part of the museum’s collection, this was made by the people themselves, by far the greatest number of the 10,000 specimens had been donated, over the last 70 years or more, by members of the public who gave (Northern Ireland) a worthy and respected costume and textile collection.’
The Ulster Museum costume and textiles collection was housed on the second floor of Malone House along with the textile conservation workshop. In November 1976 gunmen entered the building and planted two bombs which exploded. Luckily staff had been evacuated and no-one was injured. Unfortunately the second floor collapsed on top of the fire and the entire collection was destroyed.
The Lennox quilt
It could be argued that the most important piece in the costume and textile collection was saved.
The Lennox quilt, which was on display in the Ulster Museum at the time, is the only remaining object from the original collection that survives. Made in 1712 by Martha Lennox (nee Hamilton), this quilt is a wonderful example of embroidery techniques of that period, and reflects the way ladies of aristocracy would have occupied their time.
Above is the portrait of Martha’s daughter, Anne, which is held in the Ulster Museum’s painting collection.
Following the loss of the collection, the Ulster Museum applied to the Northern Ireland Office for compensation. This took a number of years, and the money to begin collecting again was not received until the mid 1980s. In the meantime, many local and national museums came to the Ulster Museum’s rescue.
The Victoria & Albert Museum put out an appeal for its members and local visitors to donate, and they answered with enthusiasm. Many of the much loved, and most frequently displayed, items in the collection came from public donations from all over England and Scotland in the early months of 1977.
A year after the fire, the Ulster Museum launched its own public appeal for donations. They specifically highlighted the need for Irish pieces and explained why costume is so important, ‘Fine costume can be visually very pleasing but it also gives a unique insight into the lives and tastes of people of the past…the history of costume has links with the history of fine and applied art and can be of value in the study of social history’.
Starting to purchase
When the Ulster Museum received the compensation for the destroyed collection it was a rare opportunity to start an entire historic costume collection.
The curators were able to assess what had been donated up to that point and make strategic decisions about future purchases. Sadly, it was nearly impossible to replace the early costume from the 1600s, but costume from the 1700s was available at auction.
One of the first purchases was this beautiful fine silk mantua, from the 1770s. A mantua is a robe that consists of multiple pieces of high-quality fabric that would have been pinned or sewn to the wearer’s undergarments. As they were separate pieces they could easily be adapted to fit with changing fashions and styles of the day.
National Museums Northern Ireland has continued to purchase important pieces of historic costume and is always conscious of representing significant changes in technology and social attitudes.
Examples pictured here include a dress from the 1860s that shows new aniline dying techniques, a 1920s flapper dress, a 1930s Utility dress, and a paper dress from the 1960s.
An important feature of the Ulster Museum costume collection is the purchase of contemporary fashion, with current pieces collected every year up until the present day.
When this practice began, in 1986, it was decided that an international designer and a high-street outfit, would be purchased each Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer. The aims were to represent important fashion trends as they happened and to collect contemporary and emerging designers; capturing a snapshot of what people are wearing each year.
Pictured here are a few examples of outfits from previous years of contemporary collecting; it has been very interesting to see the fashions change and return again. In the first few years all high street purchases were from Next, and local department stores such as Anderson & McCauley’s and Robinson & Cleaver. Purchases are now made from a much wider range of shops as the Belfast high street has diversified, reflecting people’s changing shopping habits and lifestyles.
One of the questions we are frequently asked is ‘why doesn’t the museum actively collect men’s costume?’
Our answer is that men’s costume is collected, but only when it changes significantly and needs to be recorded. Men’s fashion doesn’t vary much from season to season, so it was decided that in order to manage resources effectively we would only acquire examples of male fashion every few years, recording any major trends.
The most interesting items of men’s costume are often historical, such as this beautiful suit from around 1780, details of the intricate embroidery are pictured.
Male costume is also donated very rarely, which is possibly due to historic attitudes towards male clothing. Men’s clothes were more often viewed as practical rather than fashionable, and were worn until they had to be thrown away or adapted and tailored to fit a man at different stages in his life. This has led to limited availability of men’s costume and therefore a comparatively small collection.
Over the years the costume collection has reflected how people shop, and collecting methods have changed in-line with the public’s changing shopping habits. In 2016 it was decided that the way to represent a year of costume should be adapted, in order reflect new technologies and attitudes.
The internet has enabled consumers to buy clothes from all over the world and copy their favourite style bloggers by shopping directly from their feeds, and the attitude toward mixing high street and designer clothing has meant that people mix up their labels and are far less seasonal in their clothing choices. One ‘capsule’ collection will be purchased in order to capture the essence of fashion from that year, mixing designer and high-street, local and international.
‘Fine costume can be visually very pleasing but it also gives a unique insight into the lives and tastes of people of the past.’ Ulster Museum Director, Adam Warhurst 1976.
The Ulster Museum continues to rely on donations from the public to develop and enhance the costume collection. These donations might be items of historic interest, or clothing from recent years, or might fill a ‘gap’ that isn’t represented.
Interesting donations have included nine evening dresses from the fashion house Bellville Sasson, designed by internationally important Irish designer Lorcan Mullany, a couple of which are pictured above.
In the past year the Museum has continued to receive thoughtful donations from the public. Pictured here are few of those donations such as the black wedding coat by Nora Bradley, a shop still in existence in Belfast City Centre.
The bride pictured is Ethel Pakenham, the late wife of the local artist, Jack Pakenham who is represented by multiple works in the fine art collection. This donated dress, worn by Ethel (nee Howard) in February 1961, is a perfect example of how the costume collection can reflect the history and lives of local people.