Parachute nightgown amongst recycled items on display at Devon fashion show

Some of the garments on display are in elegant silk, others in rough wool or rough nylon – but they all have in common that they have been repaired, remodeled and reused, sometimes over the centuries.

There is a long-sleeved vest made at the end of the 17youcentury then adapted and preserved for 300 years, wedding dresses passed down from mothers to daughters and brought up to date with clever adjustments, even clothes created during the Second World War from parachutes and old military blankets when the fabric was rationed.

The clothes form part of the opening of the Thirsty for Fashion exhibition at the National Trust’s Killerton House in Devon. The aim is to make people think about how they buy and care for clothes in this world of fast fashion and throwaways.

“Recycling and reusing clothing has been commonplace throughout history,” said Shelley Tobin, costume curator at Killerton. “This exhibition asks the question: can we learn from these past practices and reapply forgotten know-how to take care of our clothes and make them more durable?

“The exhibits show that looking to history is enough to discover ways to ensure that the clothes we buy, make and wear are sustainable, ethical and avoid waste.”

The exhibit begins with T-shirts emblazoned with sobering facts about wasting clothes. It is said that 300,000 tonnes of clothes go to landfill each year in the UK and it takes 3,781 liters of water to make a pair of jeans.

In contrast, the highlight of the first room is a silk sleeved waistcoat circa 1690. It was passed down from generation to generation and at some point the horizontal pocket flaps were replaced by the more fashionable vertical flaps . At the beginning of the 20th century, it was transformed into a fancy dress costume and in the 1980s, someone saved it by relining it.

Tobin said some modern manufacturers reuse clothing and fabrics. So in the same cabinet as the waistcoat is a much more modern piece, a suit made in 2022 from old denim jeans by London fashion company ELV Denim.

Another highlight is a “transformation dress” made in 1870 consisting of a billowing skirt that could be paired with a modest long-sleeved, low-cut bodice for daytime or a more daring bodice for evening. “It was made of expensive materials, so they wanted to get the most out of it,” Tobin said.

One of the features of the exhibition is testimonials from friends and volunteers of Killerton – home to the National Trust’s largest fashion collection with over 20,000 historic garments and accessories – about their favorite vintage pieces.

Charlotte Eddington, for example, describes her beloved 1970s Guernsey wool sweater that she persuaded her father to pass on to her when it got too tight for him. It reminds her of camping and fishing in Northumberland as a child.

Sarah Parry, a gardener, shares how she wore her mother’s 1985 wedding dress when she got married last year. “It’s so floaty and frothy and ethereal,” she says. Parry added a green sash to give it a modern twist. “It was so rewarding to give the dress a second life.”

A striking set of garments on display were made during and after World War II, when fabric was rationed and the government launched the ‘make and mend’ campaign. “Most of the fabrics were very difficult to source,” Tobin said. “If you could come, for example, a parachute, you could use it.”

The show includes a nightgown made circa 1943 from a nylon parachute – but Tobin’s favorite piece is a dressing gown made in the late 1940s by an Exeter woman from military surplus blankets embellished with a beautiful green border and belt.

“I think it’s ingenious that she made it into this very stylish and durable dressing gown,” Tobin said. “We hope the exhibition will lead to discussions about whether we can learn from past practices and reapply forgotten skills to care for our clothes, and how fashion can respond to climate change, environmental concerns and the cost of living crisis.

The exhibition is presented from February 11 to November 5, 2023.

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