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Recycled material helped to make dresses found in the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society archives

Our regular columnist Martin Blake examines the origins of two dresses which are part of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society collection in the latest Gems from the Archive

Opinion polls taken in the last couple of years show that voters’ number one concern by some distance is the cost of living crisis.

In the first half of the 20th century, the effects of two world wars suppressed national economies across the world; by the end of World War Two, the UK’s national debt was more than 200% of its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even for those who managed to maintain their income at a reasonable level, the diversion of raw materials and some basic foodstuffs to the war effort forced people to adopt a significant change of lifestyle.

A gown, made from a repurposed from a bolster pillow case, which used at the christening of Phyllis Oxlade in 1917 PHOTO: SGS
A gown, made from a repurposed from a bolster pillow case, which used at the christening of Phyllis Oxlade in 1917 PHOTO: SGS

During the world wars, the production of fabrics and textiles was channelled towards military use, particularly for uniforms. The government in both wars ran a campaign called ‘Make Do And Mend’, encouraging people to repair worn garments and to recycle unneeded, or simply less important, clothing and convert it to other uses.

Two items in the collection of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society (SGS) illustrate some of the responses to these shortages. The first [Photos 1 and 2] is a gown used at the christening of Phyllis Oxlade at the church of St James, Clapham on the September 16, 1917, repurposed from a bolster pillow case. Its original wearer experienced both world wars while still young, and was married in the wedding dress which forms the second item [Photos 3 and 4].

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Phyllis married Benjamin Burkett at Wandsworth in 1943, a time when the nation was mobilising for a critical campaign to push back against Germany and its allies, and no less than 55% of the nation’s GDP was being absorbed by military spending. Clothing was rationed in 1941, and, like the christening gown, her wedding dress is made from a recycled material, in this case parachute silk which still feels strong and alluring to the touch. The decorative parts at the top of the bodice are made from parachute cords.

Phyllis Oxlade's dress is made from parachute silk PHOTO: SGS
Phyllis Oxlade's dress is made from parachute silk PHOTO: SGS

Both items have been subject to extensive restoration work by the Society’s dedicated in-house team of conservation volunteers in order to stabilise the fabric and to restore some of its original appearance. This included freezing to kill any pests and removing their remains, followed by a process of steaming. Now that this work is complete, we hope to be able to put these items on display in the near future.

The Society will be hosting a series of events to tell some of the stories of the objects that make up its diverse museum collection, and of the early members who created it. We’ll also be building on our closer relationship with Ayscoughfee Hall, with further special exhibitions and displays in the pipeline.

The SGS museum in Broad Street, Spalding, is open to visitors from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. You can also keep in touch with us, and see some of the delights of our collections, on our website at http://sgsoc.org. Through social media, we will try to keep you up to date with everything which is going on within the Society: check out our Facebook page, find us on Twitter at @sg_soc, on Instagram at sgs1732 or email us at outreach@sgsoc.org

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