As Black Country Living Museum’s costume expert, Claire Dolman spends her days telling stories through clothes. The Museum’s costume store is home to some 2,231 objects, all of which are kept in controlled conditions in the heart of its store room.

“Most of the items will have a strong local provenance, so we can really start to build up a picture of what life was like in the Black Country for the 300 year period that we cover,” says Claire. “As a living museum we’re trying to tell a story, and while these items are not on display for visitors, they are very much alive and working in the replicas we make for our Costumed Demonstrators. In many ways, I think that’s better than being behind a glass case.”

From luxurious Victorian underwear to the perfect kitsch ‘50s day dress, she takes us through her favourite pieces from the collection.

1. Corset and petticoat, both late Victorian
This very colourful set of underwear hails locally, from a shop in Old Hill in the Black Country. The colours and design of these two pieces tell us a lot about this period. Firstly, you’ll notice the wonderful bright colours and rich pattern on the skirt. We have the Great British Empire to thank for this colourful but slow-burning change in Victorian fashion. The skirt has a ‘multicultural’ feel precisely because of people’s exposure to those from the distant lands of the realm. If you look a little closer, you’ll also see quilting to the petticoat – this is very handy in a world where fires were your only option for keeping warm. I love that whatever the lady wore on top, however plain or austere, she always had this beautifully vibrant oriental interior.

2. A Victorian dress, approximately 1850s/1860s
This dress is from Darlaston, worn once by a lady whose husband was a prominent councillor. It may be difficult to tell from the photo, but when the light hits it the burnt orange colour you see here gives way to a green sheen, making this a two-toned dress. This was a very popular effect of the period and combined with the tatted lace collar it makes for quite the show-stopping effect. Here you can see the popular mid-century Victorian silhouette, with the bodice ending at the natural waistline and giving way to a skirt whose width was now beginning to diminish further as the century marched on.

3. Two piece suit, 1912-14
This is by far one of my favourite pieces in the collection, and a shape you don’t see represented very often for this period. Because of fabric shortages in the war, so many dresses from this time were altered or taken apart to create something new entirely. The skirt on this piece is called a ‘hobble’ skirt, because they were narrow enough to impede walking, thus forcing one to ‘hobble’ along. This was a fairly brief fashion trend. You’ll often hear of how women wore two connected elastic hoops around the knees to shorten the stride and avoid ripping the skirt. The things we do for fashion, eh?

4. Day dress, 1930s
This is a classic 1930s day dress, cut on the bias with viscose and falling mid-calf (any shorter would be generally inappropriate for this period). These sorts of fashions trickled down from the ostensibly omnipresent starlets of Hollywood. Their styles were now becoming more affordable, and something like this might have been purchased from one of the popular mail order fashion catalogues. It doesn’t take much to imagine Norma Shearer trotting along in one of these dresses, serving cocktails to her friends in her Malibu garden…

5. Day dress, 1950s
The mid-century wardrobe is so accessible and popular these days. But so often the ‘1950s style’ dresses we see for sale are only nods to their predecessors; corrupted, brightly-coloured versions with flamingos and polka dots. In reality, the 1950s colour palette was more muted. This dress perfectly represents this to me – yes, the kitsch pattern is there – but it’s not too pushy or flamboyant. It also has that wonderful 1950s silhouette complete with cap sleeves. A perfect little number to greet the husband with while you hold whatever it is you’ve spent all day making, probably suspended in aspic!

Black Country Living Museum is located in Dudley, West Midlands and is open 10am-5pm, seven days a week.

Lisa Harrison
Written by Lisa Harrison
Lisa is the Deputy Editor of Vintage Life Magazine and Publisher at Dragoon Publishing. She is avid bookworm, collector of vintage homeware, loves travel, lazy weekends away and eats way too much cake!