A significant collection of Thomas Hardy’s family clothes has recently been researched and documented at Dorset County Museum. This collection, spanning three generations of the Hardy family from 1800 to 1928, tell us so much about the shape, tastes and lives of the original wearers. It includes Thomas Hardy’s embroidered christening robe, a crinoline dress worn by his mother and a striking red bustle dress worn by his sister Katharine (Kate). Until now most of this collection has remained in storage, as it requires specialist mounting and display.
Dorset County Museum selected Katharine Hardy’s dress for display, as it is particularly significant in terms of colour, design, Hardy family history and in illustrating descriptions of dress in Hardy’s literature.
Bustle dress from 1890s owned by Kate Hardy, sister of Thomas Hardy –
Images © Jonathan Gooding 2014
Kate Hardy, born in 1856, was also involved in bequeathing the Hardy archive to Dorset County Museum. The importance of this collection is recognised through its recent inscription on the UK Register of Important Literary Heritage under the UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ programme.
The grant from the Daphne Bullard Trust enabled this dress to be mounted on a conservation-grade mannequin and displayed in the Thomas Hardy Gallery, in which there was previously no examples of dress. This display will be pivotal in engaging a new and broader audience for the Gallery. It is sure to stimulate public fascination and this visually attractive and accessible object of personal significance will bring the literature to life.
Donated in 1984, the dress consists of a bodice and skirt in red, ribbed (grosgrain) silk. It was made in c.1889 by the linen drapers, Genge, Dixon & Jameson in Dorchester.
An evocative personal garment with its tight-fitting, fashionable bodice and skirt, it closely resembles a dress worn by Kate, a local teacher, in photographs above. With its luxurious red silk and bustle it is also similar to the fashionable dress Tess wears in Tess of the d’Urbervilles when she is fleeing with her husband Angel Clare, having stabbed Alec d’Urberville:
‘Her clothes were of the latest fashion, even to the dainty ivory-handled parasol that she carried, a fashion unknown in the retired spot to which they had now wandered; and the cut of such articles would have attracted attention in the settle of a tavern.’
Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Penguin Classics, 2008, (first published 1891), p. 390
Conservation and Mounting the Dress
The intention of this project was to display the dress both safely and sympathetically by providing adequate support. It was also important for the result to look aesthetically pleasing to the museum visitor.
Kate Hardy had a very small waist and narrow shoulders so a museum grade mannequin was purchased. This was adapted by padding relevant areas with polyester wadding. Strips of wadding were sewn onto the torso with care taken to work symmetrically. When the correct shape was acquired the entire mannequin was covered with cotton jersey. The fabric was left unstitched in places to allow more padding to be added if necessary when the dress was finally placed on mannequin.
A calico petticoat was made and attached to the torso and net flounces were sewn in layers to support the skirt and accentuate the slight train of the dress. A silk overskirt was made to prevent the net catching the fragile lining of the skirt and enable ease of dressing the mannequin.
Padded arm supports were made with a slight curve to allow sleeves to hold their natural shape. These were attached at the shoulder point only and allowed to hang freely to enable easier dressing of the mannequin.
A pattern was taken of neck and conservation board cut to shape and covered with a grey polyester fabric. The neck circle of the mannequin was covered in same way and reattached by sewing. A ‘bib’ was sewn onto the mannequin to match and fill the open neckline for photography and display.
The intention was to bring this vibrant dress belonging to Kate Hardy to life and this has been achieved. The dress is well supported on the adapted mannequin and is now on display in the Dorset Writers Gallery, enhancing this space with its dramatic presence.
Displaying the Dress
The display opened in the Thomas Hardy Gallery on Friday 12th December, 2014. The garment is displayed in a case together with Kate’s black and white striped parasol. It is the first time that it has been displayed alongside photographs of the wearer and in the context of Thomas Hardy’s literary heritage.
A text panel, labels and photographs interpret the dress in the context of Kate Hardy’s life, and the rich array of clothing described in Thomas Hardy’s works, illuminating fiction with fashion. The display also reflects the inspiring and engaging potential of collections, uncovering new research and displaying previously unseen objects for public enjoyment.
The dress will be linked with the Thomas Hardy: Fashion, Fact and Fiction exhibition at Dorset County Museum, planned for April 2019. This exhibition will examine Hardy’s work from a fresh perspective in the context of fashion, interweaving costume with images, letters, literature and diaries. It will be based around a core Dorset County Museum collection of dress worn by Thomas Hardy and his family, fashionable dress and rural workers clothing.
Dorset County Museum is very grateful to the Daphne Bullard Trust for its generous support in making this project possible.
Helen Francis, Mounting Conservator
Lucy Johnston, Curator
Dorset County Museum,
12th December 2014