Time features significantly in the pastime of Jenny Unsworth and Jackie Taylor. Their unusual hobby sees them spending huge amounts of time researching bygone eras… and then finding sufficient of the precious commodity to do what they enjoy doing – recreating 400-year old period costumes. Barry Hook steps back in time with them.
Jenny Unsworth smooths the wrinkles on her latest dress and asks me the direct question. “What do you think?”
The question caught me by surprise. I am no style guru but I suppose I was flattered by her belief in my opinion.
‘It’s not a style which will catch on’ is what I was tempted to say – but I resisted such a flippant response.
Nevertheless, it would have been a true description of the dress I was looking at on the mannequin. It was a recreation of a dress that was fashionable in the latter part of the 18th century and had been made by Jenny and her colleague, Jackie Taylor.
Recreating period costumes is their passion. I can only describe their creations as works of art… masterpieces which are not
fashioned in oils on canvas, nor hewn out of blocks of marble but cut from textiles, sewn together and adorned with accessories.
And the essence of the costumes they make from bygone ages is that they are authentic; true to the original in every
detail and correct in every stitch. There is not a zip in sight. And Velcro is verboten.
“We try to use the same fabrics as the original,” says Jenny, “but when that is not possible we have to compromise.”
Jenny, from Congleton and Jackie from Knutsford describe themselves as ‘hobby sewers’. They were both taught to sew by their mothers.
Jenny puts the start of her hobby down to the Venice Carnival which ends with Lent, forty days before Easter on Shrove Tuesday. It attracts 3m world-wide visitors annually, almost all of whom wear period costumes and masks. “I make our
costumes for the carnival and that was how I became interested in period
It probably helps Jenny that she also has degrees in both history and English language
because a social knowledge of the period is essential and research is relentless.
Finding the correct fabrics is time
consuming. And that applies not only to the garments, which they make for both females and males but, also, to the shoes and the parasols. “We tour the antique textile fairs and charity shops searching for materials and accessories such as buttons and beads,” says Jenny. “Period jewellery is particularly difficult to source.”
Undoubtedly, acquiring the correct fabrics and accessories makes it a costly hobby. “It is an expensive pastime,” admits Jackie, “but then so many hobbies are expensive but we don’t want to become professional. It is a hobby of joy, and I do admit to enjoying dressing-up once a costume is made.”
What the couple don’t do, is to make fancy dress costumes. This is a much more serious hobby more akin to
creating a social history of a particular time period.
The costumes they make – and they have a wardrobe of over 200 – are made to be worn. They are bespoke; made to fit the models who will wear them at charity shows. “Depending on the complexity of the garment, it can take us up to 6-weeks to create one costume,” says Jenny. The charity shows are themselves, time consuming, sometimes involving 16 models and several hairdressers.
Consider all the ironing that is required. The end result is, however, a wonderful spectacle.
Then comes the aftermath. “People do so like to touch, feel and examine the garments and they are very difficult to clean,” says Jackie.
Other costumes are made for specific venues. Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, for instance, has a set of Victorian costumes and the couple are now creating some display costumes for Styal from the 1875 to 1900 period.
The pair also work with Lyme Hall which has a project underway where visitors can actually dress-up in the costumes.
This Christmas, as usual, these two ‘hobby sewers’ will be dressing the guides and the shop assistants at Styal Mill to recreate a Victorian Christmas (8th-9th and 15th–16th Dec) where you will be able to learn more about the costumes.
The Empire Line dress (left) became fashionable around the time of the French revolution. It is made of fine printed muslin lined with cotton lawn. The basic style of a shift with a stricture under the bust was a complete departure from the styles that had dominated several centuries. There was no longer a necessity for constraining corsets or hooped skirts and French women, and perhaps even highly fashionable Englishwomen, were reputed to wear the dresses with nothing underneath.
The Polonaise dress with a blue underskirt was fashionable during the later part of the 18th Century. It is made of a cream cotton/linen mix fabric which is printed with blue flowers and is worn over a corset and a hoop. The blue taffeta petticoat is separate. The dress is finished with a lawn fichu which could be worn tucked inside the gown, or outside like a scarf. The sleeve ruffles, edged with cotton lace, are detachable.