Victorian Costumes

In June 2001 Friends ran a very successful Victorian Strawberry Tea on the lawns of the Old Bishop's Palace at Abergwili, near Carmarthen. This article was written for The Friend by Gwyneth Grindrod, who was in charge of making the costumes. She also took the part of the Housekeeper, keeping her staff under firm control!
 

Drs. Alistair and Hilary Loxdale, long-standing members of the Friends, with their guests.

 

The costumes worn by the ladies serving the teas were originally designed and made for a Women’s Institute production of a Victorian melodrama set in the 1870’s. They were made by Gwyneth Grindrod, Barbara McLarty and Jane James, members of Conwyl Elfed W.I from sketches drawn up by Gwyneth. Prior to this, Gwyneth had undertaken a fair amount of research in Carmarthen Library, utilising books on costume and original photographs of servants in country houses of the period.

The play required costumes for the Housekeeper, Ladies Maid, Parlour Maid, Cook and Scullery Maid and the garments were made up from unused lengths of material found in attics and workboxes, or donations – the dresses for the more junior maids and the cook were denim (originally destined for jeans!) and the striped denim we found lent itself particularly to the bodice of Cook’s gown – cooks often wore striped material in the later Victorian era. Pale blues were shades much favoured by the country mistresses for their maidservants, so the denims proved to be ideal, and as one of the ‘Friends’ serving ladies said when getting into the gear, they were reminiscent of early nurses’ uniforms – doubtless that was the source from whence the uniforms were derived from the turn of the 19th Century. The pinafores were made from lengths of sheeting, as were the mobcaps. It was noted that the ‘pinnies’ were quite copious and very plain, not sporting frills on the shoulder straps. It was evident from old photographs that the garments worn by servants on the more modest country estates and in the smaller country houses were often much plainer than those in aristocratic or town homes and the frills were only introduced more generally in the Edwardian period.

The ladies maid’s ‘pinny’ was usually much shorter and less ‘enveloping’ as she was only expected to attend on her mistress and not undertake very menial tasks. A further indication of her more superior position in the household was the length of the black ribbons and the presence of fine lace on her mobcap, which was also quite small. Cook always wore a plain and larger cap, obviously to cover her long hair satisfactorily when preparing food. The housekeeper’s gown was of a somewhat earlier style with the only concession to

 

the 1870s being the hint of a bustle in the fullness at the back of the skirt. Her headdress was more reminiscent of that worn in the portraits of Florence Nightingale and hailed from the 1850s or 1860s. Housekeepers often adopted older styles in order to appear more restrained and authoritative and imbue a sense of respect amongst the more flighty maidservants! The matching net and lace neckpiece was an original, found tucked away in a box of old swatches and ribbons. It would have been a very rare occasion indeed on which she would have donned a pinafore but on the day of the Strawberry Tea she had to assist the other maids in more menial tasks than she was accustomed to, hence the pinafore borrowed from the scullery maid!

The dresses were not tailored quite so tightly as would have been fashionable at the period (a small concession to modern belief in comfort), but underneath all those skirts we were wearing the full frilled petticoats, black thick knee stockings and black high vamped shoes! The gardener and coconut-shy barker wore the loosely cut trousers, waistcoats and ‘granddad shirts favoured by the working men at that time (raiding charity shops helped here!). Because he spent hours out in the sun, the gardener wore a straw hat and the barker, being of fairgound folk and thus more flamboyant had donned a somewhat battered bowler (aspirations to unattainable grandeur?).

The female costumes had all been made to fit the original cast members, so a bit of alteration to fit the ladies of the ‘Friends’ was called for. Where hems had to be raised the traditional method was employed - tucking around the width of the skirts and pinnies. The Victorian country mistresses were very thrifty: garments were handed on to newer staff and the tucking, as well as being ornamental, was also serviceable – it could be taken up or let down as necessary. In spite of alterations and inaccuracies necessitated by comfort, the ladies and gentlemen presented a charming scene when moving around in the delightful Victorian setting of the Museum.

Gwyneth Grindrod

 

Housekeeper Gwyneth Grindrod, in her original Victorian cap, helps her staff serve teas

Committee member Marian Davies as the dowager