Situated on Totnes High Street in a Grade 1 listed building with fine original Tudor plaster ceilings, the Totnes Fashion & Textile Museum is home to the Devonshire Collection of Period Costume, the largest private collection of its type in the UK. The collection holds tens of thousands of objects and items of clothing, the earliest dating from about 1650, although most come from the 18th century to the present day. With more than 100 storage boxes each holding multiple hats, and eight boxes simply storing shawls, there are legions of accessories, handbags and shoes, and clothes ranging from the sumptuous to the everyday.
2018 Pop Up Exhibition:
WOMEN THROUGH THE WAR – the Impact of WW1 on how women dressed
The years surrounding the First World War saw significant changes to many women’s lives, which were reflected in the clothes they wore. From the restrictive, if beautiful, dresses of the Edwardian era to the more emancipated styles of the early 1920s, a social revolution was being set in motion. Initially voiced by the suffragettes, it then accelerated during the war as women took over what had been traditionally men’s roles in munitions factories, in non combatant roles in the military, notably as nurses, and elsewhere. Finally, the Representation of the People Act in 1918 gave the vote to some 8.4 million women aged over 30 who met minimum property qualifications.
To mark this anniversary, the Museum has mounted a small exhibition of clothes which represent these changes – from an elegant ensemble from the early years of the 20th century, to the much looser and freer dress styles which emerged in the 1920s. Highlights include an extravagant hat decorated in suffragette colours and an eye-catching cycling outfit, which stands in contrast to the more severe ensembles worn by working women during the war years, including a nurse’s uniform of the time.
The Museum is not without its own challenges, however. This lovely Grade 1 listed building is experiencing necessary renovation work which is restricting the ability of the Museum to mount a full scale exhibition. Instead, one large room will be open until the end of September. The exhibition features ensembles with supporting accessories, and a display of photographs from the period provided by the Totnes Image Bank. The Museum’s shop will be open as usual. The exhibition will therefore be open by donation rather than a set charge, with all the money raised going to help keep this little gem of an organisation going.
Additionally, there are plans for a series of talks on different aspects of fashion and clothing through the years, which will be open to all. Regular articles on aspects of the running the Museum, with periodic updates on the renovation work, will be featured on the Museum’s website, and a book about the collection is currently being finalised for publication later this year. Information on all these activities will be made available on the Museum’s website, as plans are confirmed.
The Totnes Fashion & Textiles Museum is open daily from 11am – 5pm, Tuesday – Friday until the end of September. With some uncertainty surrounding building work, it is strongly advised that visitors check the Museum website to confirm that it is open, before setting out. All opening details, plus information on talks, regular articles and updates can be found on the website.
The museum is also fortunate to have a team of committed volunteers and an experienced curator who will work with schools, colleges and other groups to tailor presentations as required, and bring out everything from corsetry to evening wear. While of particular interest to those studying textiles or fashion, the collection also provides a rich source of material for those interested in social history. Research enquiries or requests for talks should be directed to Julia Fox on (01803) 862857.