… this is the question they are asking on the Antiques Road Show (UK edition) this season.
Without a doubt what I see offered the most as donations to the Fashion History Museum are Christening gowns. Beautifully made and saved for posterity, Christening gowns must have a near 100% survival rate. Christening gowns don’t respond to fashion as noticeably as wedding gowns, which also survive in large numbers, and they have the added advantage of usually being adjustable with ties in the back to fit any sized baby.
So far I have accepted only one Christening gown into the collection of the Fashion History Museum, however it is an ornate example, it was also worn in Canada and is positively identified as having been made and used in 1884 and again in 1921 for the daughter of the original wearer.
When it comes to what I would most like to see, I could hope to find some lost garments from history, like a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I, but instead I have chosen something which I know does exist, but rarely – a bloomer-trouser bicycling suit from the 1890s. I bid on one at an auction in New York about fifteen years ago but ended up the underbidder, and I do know where there is a spectacular corduroy one in a private collection, but I don’t know of any others in collections, private or public, although there must be many in existance.
The bicycling suit was based on the bloomer costume, introduced as an emancipated dress for women in the 1840s. The outfit (shown at right) consisted of harem trousers worn under a short skirt and was named for Amelia Bloomer, an American advocate for women’s rights and temperance. The costume was worn by modern-thinking women, usually in the privacy of their own homes. If you want to see what they looked like in action – there are some wonderful recreated 1860s and 1870s bloomer costumes depicted in the film Oscar and Lucinda. Bloomer costumes were adopted for sportswear – gymastic exercise outfits and bathing suits; many examples of these have survived and are often mistaken for cycling costumes.
Fashion borrowed the bloomer costume and translated it into a tailored outfit for bicycle riding in the 1890s. The vast majority of women who cycled wore suits with shorter skirts and tall, laced boots but only the most daring adopted the bloomer trouser-style tailored suit. Conservative tastes saw the style as a gateway to sin and laws prohibiting women from appearing in trousers in public were enacted in many places around the world.