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10 May 2023

Dressing for the long Edwardian summer

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
House of Dun seen from along an avenue of tall trees, on a sunny day.
House of Dun, Montrose
The two Edwardian summer dresses were conserved last year as part of an ongoing project to highlight items from the Angus Folk Museum and are now installed at House of Dun.

The two dresses on display at House of Dun are part of the collection of the Angus Folk Museum (formerly at Glamis) and were gifts from women whose grandmothers lived in Forfar. We cannot tell if these women knew one another, but we can conclude that the women lived a privileged life and one which did not require them to perform manual labour. We know this since both dresses were in good condition with little evidence of repair. The conservation required was mainly confined to the hems and lower portions of the dresses, associated with use whilst at leisure, and was supported by the Trust. Tuula Pardoe at The Scottish Conservation Studio carried out the work and we are grateful to her for the use of some of her images.

Dress IDd22 is the older of the two dresses, dating to around 1910. The very slightly bell-shaped design of the lower skirt illustrates this well and contrasts with the much straighter skirt of the other dress, which dates to around 1912. The bodice of this dress also bears the last vestiges of the slightly ‘pouter pigeon’ look from earlier in the decade; this was the fashionable, full loose-front but was considerably flattened by 1910 and no longer worn by 1912.

The older dress was in slightly better condition as evidenced by the minimal amount of work required by the conservator to prepare it for display. The dress is made from thick cotton and linen whitework, and these fabrics are very susceptible to deep creasing. Whitework is the technique in which the decorative stitching is in the same colour as the foundation fabric, traditionally white linen. It was decided not to wet-clean the dress because to do so, coupled with the drying that would have followed, would have likely made the dress rather stiff due to being linen. To fully wet the dress would also have risked distorting the embroidery. The creases of the dress were instead relaxed with steam, followed by drying them with a hairdryer.

Dress IDd13 dates to around 1912 and is much finer and more delicate, made from fine cotton lawn with broderie anglaise and drawn threadwork. The sleeves have beautiful pin-tucked detail and are extremely fragile, making the process of mounting quite nerve-wracking! Due to the fragile fabric, this dress required quite substantial conservation which included repairs to the skirt and the removal of a large brown coloured stain on one of the sleeves.

These types of dresses were fashionable between 1910 and 1914, a period in history known as ‘the long Edwardian summer’. This was because, in 1911, Great Britain enjoyed extraordinarily high temperatures between May and September. The leisured classes took picnics, played tennis, went sailing and threw house parties. The old King Edward had died in 1910 (the Edwardian era) and the new King George V was to be crowned. There was a heady air of gaiety and the privileged classes with their servants, their money, and the convenient rigidity of the class system were determined that their enjoyable way of life should not alter.

The white dresses epitomise the hedonistic period that was enjoyed so briefly before the world changed forever. Whilst the upper and leisured classes looked forward to a glorious summer dominated by the coronation and filled with an unprecedented number of parties, the storm clouds of revolution, women’s suffrage, the Home Rule Crisis and the Great War were gathering.

The exhibition at House of Dun aptly reflects the aim of the dresses on display. Whilst the idyll of the ‘country house’ is the perfect setting for two white dresses to be displayed over the summer months, the concept of a glorious golden summer is largely the result of a wave of nostalgia which emerged in the 1920s following the Great War, and did not acknowledge the inequalities in society of the time.

Music flowed with the lightness and flash of water under the striped awnings and from the balconies; while beyond the open illuminated windows in the rooms, the young men about to be slaughtered, feasted, unconscious of all but the moment.’ – Osbert Sitwell, Author, 1911

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