What does fashion have to do with all those pestilential plights, and what indeed to do with Samuel 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.
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 came to Greenwich in 2015 for the Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution 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.
To prepare for the exhibition expert textile conservators slowly transformed 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 was 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).
The needle lace collar was part of the Blackbone Collection at The Bowes Museum. Textile conservators painstakingly coaxed the historical lace into the right shape, and fashioned it into the perfect collar for the Silver Tissue Dress.
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 the textile conservator, “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”.
The fashion extravaganza continued in the Pepys show with gloves festooned with loops and loops of silk and metal thread ribbons, also dating from the 1660s. The gloves were 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.