The sight of leash-less dogs and their owners, seated at an outdoor café on a Wednesday morning within the sprawling 186-acre Gunnersbury Park, away from the drone of traffic and sight of tall buildings, was enough to make me forget that I was in London.
Except that I was – in Acton Town, a 30-minute westbound outshoot from Oxford Street on the tube. London boroughs Ealing and Hounslow mutually share Gunnersbury Park, which is also home to an 18th-century garden, children’s playground, a pond, open fields and the Gunnersbury Museum. And the museum, which is actually a large mansion situated behind the park café, is devoted to displaying a range of objects and artworks from the average locals who frequent it.
Curator Vanda Foster invited my colleagues and I on that Wednesday to take a closer look at a few 19th and 20th-century fashion items in her possession – where the history of these average Londoners were written in the textiles and the seams. In a large back room with a wooden table covered in tissue paper, Foster pulled out a few examples from a garment rack and laid them out for our inspection:
1820s Daytime Dress
“You just knew more about how to make clothes then,” said Foster. An 1820s handmade dress features piping, frills at the bottom of the skirt and a drawstring in the back to accommodate a bustle, in what was then a push towards a more hourglass shape. The limited fabrics and vegetable dyes both restricted and allowed people in the early 1800s to really master the art of dressmaking.
1830s Mutton-sleeve Dress
Subtle, but keen on a volume, a 1830s dress uses a series of pleating to add volume to the sleeves. The long mutton-sleeves, which would normally be worn pushed up, had only piping for decoration. The dress, partly lined with cotton gauze, would also be worn with a bustle in the back.
1868 Thompson Crinoline
The metal crinoline, wrapped in thread and linked by cotton and wool bands, was a popular undergarment choice for women in the late 1800s. To wear the crinoline under the skirt was “like wearing a lampshade”, said Foster, as she pulled the crinoline over a mannequin in the room. So complicated was it for a woman during that time period to be dressing herself, that it was a task that could not have been achieved without the help of a maid.
1870s Princess Line Dress
An explosion of frilly lace and bows over brocade – cut from narrow strips so that the fabric doesn’t pucker. “They’re harking back to the 17th century with all the brocade and embellishment,” said Foster. It’s a difficult dress to make and wear. Typicall worn over a longer corset, the dress fits narrowly over the hips and tightly everywhere else.
1920s Sequin Dress
From a set of boxes with sequined dresses wrapped in tissue paper, Foster carefully pulled out a multicolour sequin dress. The sequin dresses were a drastic change from the frothy, pleated look of garments worn only a decade earlier – and even the corseted dresses of less then a quarter century before. But the liberation in woman’s dress was not without its own set of constraints. The sequins on the dress melt in the sun or under intense heat.