A very fashionable Pepys Show: 1660s Glam Frock

Pacific Encounter Gallery closure

Pacific Encounters Gallery at the National Maritime Museum will be closed to visitors until 11am on Friday 25 October.

We go behind the scenes of the Samuel Pepys installation. Alongside beautiful paintings and amazing objects there’s some stunning 17th century clothing that's just gone on display. 

In today's guest blog we talk to the Fashion Museum Bath about preparing one particularly striking dress.

Hello, I’m Rosemary from the Fashion Museum Bath, and I’m at the National Maritime Museum for a couple of days helping to get ready for the Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution exhibition, which opens on 20 November 2015.

What does fashion have to do with all those pestilential plights, and what indeed to do with Pepys? Well, quite a lot really – the diarist was a wry observer of what went on in the 1660s, and what was worn (and by whom) did not escape his gaze.

Silver Tissue Dress from the Fashion Museum Bath
Silver Tissue Dress from the Fashion Museum Bath

Getting a sense though of the fashions that Pepys was writing about is quite difficult nowadays, some 350 years later. This is because original dress from the 1660s has not really survived… Except that is, one glorious, and almost complete, glittering silver court dress, known as the Silver Tissue Dress, normally at the Fashion Museum Bath, but which will here in Greenwich for the next  five months, as part of the exhibition.

The Silver Tissue Dress was worn by Theophilia, daughter of an ancient West Country family, the Harrises of Hayne, who traditionally guarded the passage across the River Tamar from Devon into Cornwall. This was her dress for formal occasions, in the presence of the king; and my, how she would have shone and shimmered in the candlelight!

Silver Tissue Dress from the Fashion Museum Bath
The silver would shine in candlelight


The exhibition gallery space was empty when I arrived this morning; but across the day beautiful paintings and precious objects have been emerging from packing cases. Skilled technicians up ladders have been installing huge oil paintings (ones that I have only ever seen in books before); and in our corner of the gallery expert textile conservators have slowly been transforming what at first looked like flat lengths of historical fabrics into a glamourous Pepys-style fashion show.


Fashion is nothing without the right accessory, and, for the first time in a generation, the Silver Tissue Dress will be seen with an exquisite needle lace collar. (Collars and cuffs were separate items of dress, not attached to a main garment, until much later in history).  This collar is the same style that Theophilia would have chosen to go with her silver court dress, (itself decorated all the way down the front, at the hem and the sleeves, with bobbin lace made with strips of parchment).

Attaching the lace collar to the Silver Tissue Dress
Attaching the lace collar to the Silver Tissue Dress

The needle lace collar is part of the Blackbone Collection at The Bowes Museum. Today, in the gallery, textile conservators Katy and Julie painstakingly coaxed the historical lace into the right shape, and fashioned it into the perfect collar for the Silver Tissue Dress.

The job of breathing life into Theophilia’s dress, and giving this historical garment a sense of what our 1660s lady might have looked like, has gone to textile conservator Philly. The dress stand was padded according to Theophilia’s measurements (gleaned from the dress), and hooped petticoats were made to hold out the skirts and give it a true 1660s shape.  “I like the creativity of it”, said Philly, “In a way, you’re making a person, and it’s a special feeling and a privilege to guess at what they must have looked like all those years ago”.

Silver Tissue Dress at the National Maritime Museum

The fashion extravaganza continues in the Pepys show with gloves festooned with loops and loops of silk and metal thread ribbons, also dating from the 1660s. The gloves are owned by the Glove Collection Trust and loaned to the National Maritime Museum especially for this exhibition courtesy of the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London.

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