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Title: The Theatre of History Dress

Garment: 17th Century English Court Dress

Inspiration: 17th-18th Century dresses from the English court; paper theatres from the 19th century; images from the family photo album of Joanna Bastin (80), resident of Danny House; garments in the V&A collection; peonies (and other flowers) found in the garden and Great Hall of Danny House.

Materials: Paper & Thread

Size: Life-sized


This dress hangs over a wide card and paper pannier which I needed to construct before I began to make the skirt. The dress is approximately 1.5 metres wide and 40cms deep. Such garments, when originally designed and worn, allowed for the display of a large area of decoration such as botanically accurate flowers, which were a common feature of Rococo embroidery. They also showed off the patterned silks and printed textiles of the English court in the mid 1700’s.


Perhaps as a measure of eighteenth-century theatricality and sensuality it was fashionable for the skirts of dresses of the time to demonstrate a part open drapery effect known as ‘open robe’.


I chose to insert a whole stage set at the centre of the skirt of this dress. This 3-d image of the front of Danny House is produced from lightweight card in the nature of theatre scenery and is inspired by the technique of making paper theatres, for both adults and children, which would become popular by the early 19th century.



Gathering the fabric of a dress was another commonplace 18th century decorative technique, as was the use of ornate embroidery. Likewise a piece of decorative cloth draped around a woman’s shoulders, known as a ‘fichus’ and a central v or u-shaped panel known as a ‘stomacher’, placed over the centre of the chest. All these elements influenced my design.


The large pink peonies on this dress are machine embroidered on tissue paper and sit in urns reflective of those that stand by the front door and in the garden of Danny House. The leaves of the peonies and the other flowers and leaves decorating the front of the skirt and those around the neck area on the back of the dress, are all formed using a technique known as ‘quilling’ or ‘paper filigree’.

I was at primary school when I first learned how to roll and glue thin strips of coloured paper in order to create shapes. In the 18th century quilling was a popular European pastime amongst “ladies of quality”.


The three layers of the cuffs of the sleeves of this dress fall down the back of the skirt in a manner that was typical of the Classic Rococo ‘triple-sleeve ruffle effect’ - often found on ‘mantua’ dresses of the time and introduced into court dress by the mid seventeen hundreds. These ones are embroidered with small flowers, in part by Danny resident Oz Cottam-Moss (97) who used to make clothes for herself and her daughters.


It is Joanna Bastin's (nee Campion) family connection with Danny House (the Campions owned it for many generations), and a series of 3 photographs from 1911 that she was able to show me, that inspired the introduction of a single figure into the imagery on The Theatre of History Dress. A little paper girl is therefore to be seen running from the paper theatre house on the front and, still in her long frilly white dress and cap, she is drawn on the back of the dress trying to climb over an (embroidered) wall in a very un-ladylike manner; as if in protest against female fashion and it's tendency to restrict a woman’s movements. Dresses of the sort of which the Theatre of History Dress is one, saw court ladies needing to walk sideways through doorways.

for more information about the residency that inspired this piece please click here:



Photography by Ray Sullivan

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