Sunday, 1 May 2011

Fairlynch Museum has dresses to thrill

I've been so preoccupied by the life and career of Surgeon Commander Murray Levick, the subject of Fairlynch's current main exhibition, that I was in danger of neglecting other areas where volunteers at Budleigh Salterton's Museum had been hard at work with their own display areas.

That was until I suddenly dreamt up that silly headline for my post at

And then I began to think about how Fairlynch Museum began, and how one of its chief glories is its costume collection.

The Museum holds approximately 4,000 items of men's, women's and children's clothing as a result of donations made over the years. Some are rare pieces dating as far back as the early 1700s.

The collection originated as an assortment of period costumes and 'fripperies' gathered by Budleigh Salterton residents, the sisters Joy, Elizabeth and Aalish Gawne in the pre-World War Two period. It was for many years privately housed but displayed on special occasions during the 1960s.

With the development into flats of many of the town's larger houses at that time, trunks full of costumes were being unearthed in attics and making their way into jumble sales. The collection grew. Finally, with the acquisition of Fairlynch and its opening as a museum on 27 July 1967, a permanent exhibition based on this fascinating parade of centuries-old clothing and accessories could be admired by the public.

Further growth came at this time with the donation by a local resident of items which came to be known as the Pile Costume Collection, originally made and worn by members of the Pile family from Otterton. They included creations in lace as well as a chestnut corded silk jacket and skirt from the 1860s, and a wedding dress of brown silk with blue stripes. The most unusual piece in this collection is the hood of a red cloak, supposedly worn by local women who paraded on the cliffs at Ladram Bay at the time when an invasion by Napoleon was threatened. The idea was to convince any approaching French ships that redcoated soldiers were on the lookout.

Other items at Fairlynch came from Mrs Lennox, a royal nanny who disposed of various garments which would have been worn by princes and princesses of Queen Victoria's day.

The oldest piece at Fairlynch is a handmade dress from the 1740s, possibly made from Spitalfields silk.

Only a small proportion of the Fairlynch costume collection can be seen on display at any one time, but the regular exhibitions arranged by our volunteer helpers allow for a rotation of interesting items. Expert advice was sought at an early stage on caring for the collection, and costumes not on display are stored in conditions where light and humidity are strictly controlled.

Early volunteer helpers with the costume collection included experts like Freda Wills, a costume curator at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, and support from RAMM has been maintained with the most recent advice being given by conservation development officer Helena Jaeschke.

So if you're into vintage fashion and are looking for ideas pop into the Museum next time you're passing, or better still, click on find out how to join the Friends of Fairlynch and spend happy hours studying this year's impressive displays.

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