The RARE and gorgeous dresses worn by the women of Carlisle amaze visitors to the new permanent costume gallery at the Tullie House Museum.
The clothes have drawn visitors to a new costume gallery at the Museum since it opened in July.
The gallery showcases 300 years of clothing worn by local women, including many items never before exhibited, and some of national significance.
Unusually for costume galleries, most dresses come with information about their owners.
“It’s wonderful to see people come in and enjoy and take an interest in the costumes,” said Gabrielle Heffernan, curator at Tullie House on Castle Street in Carlisle.
“Every time someone walks in they stand there and say wow! Many of these dresses have never been seen by the public before.
Items of national significance include a mid-18th century courtyard mantua.
“It’s a beautiful blue dress with silver threads,” says Gabrielle. “It’s about six feet wide and looks pretty weird – they’ve been worn by wealthy women at the amazing events they’ve been to.”
Other important dresses include several belonging to Dorothy Howard, daughter of George Howard, the 9th Earl of Carlisle, from Naworth Castle.
Costumes aren’t just for the rich and famous. They include clothes worn by ordinary women, such as a lady who lived in Burgh by Sands in the mid-1800s, who appears to have changed her day dress so that she could breastfeed her baby.
There is a wedding dress worn by the maid Margaret Pearson for her marriage in 1925 to a man who was a train conductor on the Royal Scot. Among the more contemporary outfits is a McVities ‘Cracker Packers’ uniform.
The most up-to-date exhibit is the scrubs worn by nurse Evelyn Charlotte Nakachwa while working during the Covid pandemic at the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle.
A beautiful wedding dress has a story to tell, not only of Carlisle but also of world events.
It belonged to Julie Martin, whom many will remember as one of the principal secretarial professors at Carlisle Technical College.
Julie’s daughter, Judith Clarke, lives in Cumwhitton and is herself a former costume curator at Tullie House.
She said, “It’s a beautiful dress. I would have loved to wear it to my own wedding, but I was too tall. It is woven of shiny and matte areas so that it glows in the light.
“It has padded shoulders that were all the rage at the time and covered buttons on the back and cuff. There was also a train. It is very elegant. She was a very beautiful, very beautiful young woman. She obviously loved the dress.
“She got the material for the dress through a former Ferguson Works employee at Holme Head,” says Judith.
“She was successful in obtaining fabric for export. The rationing was still very strict at that time, and she only managed to get it with the help of other people with clothing coupons. Maybe they gave her some extra coupons so she could afford it. She doesn’t say how much it costs.
Bridesmaids’ dresses had their own wartime connection.
The head maid of honor was to be a friend called Mary Walker who worked in Berlin for the British occupation army of the Rhine after the war ended.
Judith said, “She would arrange for the bridesmaid dresses to be made there and she would bring them.
“There was a thriving black market in Germany at the time, and she was able to get the material. But just before she could return for the wedding, there was the blockade of Berlin.
The blockade was a notorious international crisis triggered by the Soviet Union blocking access to parts of Berlin that were under Western control, during the international occupation of Germany after World War II.
“This meant that Mary couldn’t come back, so she sent the dresses in the diplomatic bag,” says Judith. “They arrived just in time on the morning of the wedding.”
“In itself, it’s a pretty, pretty dress. But there is also this history, and associations with my mother and with life in Carlisle, and links with the war and Germany. It’s quite a story. ”