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Behind the Scenes: The Secret Life of Clothes - Harris Museum, Preston

PUBLISHED: 12:38 21 February 2014

Horrockses fashions

Horrockses fashions


If you ever wondered what went on behind the scenes in a museum, this is the exhibition for you. Martin Pilkington reports

Caroline Alexander, holding a Red velvet embroidered smoking cap, around 1850.Caroline Alexander, holding a Red velvet embroidered smoking cap, around 1850.

It might lack the special effects of a ‘Night at the Museum’ but, if you are fascinated by frocks, an exhibition at the Harris in Preston could prove to be every bit as riveting as the Hollywood movie.

This new shows gives an insight into Lancashire’s links with the fashion industry while demonstrating what goes on behind the display cabinets to ensure the survival of its precious collection.

Says curator Caroline Alexander: ‘We wanted to try to recreate the atmosphere of our stores and show what goes on in there.’

The exhibition reflects a fraction of the collection but it shows off what the team in Preston must do to keep items in good order. ‘This shows there’s lots of work that goes on between the two states people think about – on display and in store.’

Its full title is ‘Behind the Scenes: The Secret Life of Clothes’ and it runs for the whole of 2014 and beyond. ‘We’re making this interactive, so if people have specific requests of things to see – say dresses from the 1920s – they can tweet us,’ says the museum’s Sam Mason.

That interactivity extends to various workshops like ‘Inspired by Accessories’ on February 22nd, where you can book to work with artist Tanvi Kant creating textile jewellery. Among the work you might see in progress is a silk motoring jacket from about 1900. Eleanor Palmer, of Lancashire Conservation Studios, is part way through restoring it.

Several displays show the importance of work done by volunteers. Greta Kyrpczyk-Oddy, of the Friends of the Harris, has spent one day a week for eight years cataloguing the huge collection of fashion plates – and there are boxes still to do.

The samplers are another example. ‘They used to be stored between tissue, but that provides no support, so we’ve repacked everything in plastic wallets with acid-free card. We have a really active section of volunteers called the Costume Collection Champions who’ve done most of the work - made the wallets, given each sampler a vacuum to remove any dust,’ says Caroline.

Along with the technical stuff there are dozens of dazzling outfits on display – a bright blue 1960s dress is one eye-catcher; magnificent ball-gowns; and 1940s numbers with tiny waistlines.

The accessories could be the stars, though. They include smoking caps, platform shoes and clutch-bags. ‘The catalogue may just say ‘hat’ or ‘pair of shoes,’ so students from Preston College are helping to photograph and repack them,’ adds Caroline. ‘People comment how spooky the shoes are, seeing little indentations left by the original wearer. It’s very intimate. And some people get really excited about the handbags. They’re such a private space.’

There is something equally intimate in actually seeing inside the clothing, and getting a glimpse of the life it leads when not on display, recreating the feeling of discovery even for an expert like Caroline. ‘You open up those wardrobes and get the oohs and aahs. I still experience it myself.’

Find out more about the workshops, talks and tours at

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