From Bridgerton style dresses to hip hop trainers, a new Lotherton Hall fashion exhibition celebrates eveningwear through the ages

A new exhibition at Lotherton Hall, near Leeds, celebrates 200 years of getting dressed to impress, as curator Natalie Raw tells Stephanie Smith. Main exhibition pictures by Tony Johnson.

For centuries, women, and many men, have been pondering the question, what on earth shall I wear for that? There can be few people who have not contemplated an upcoming big night out – a charity ball, a special birthday party or even just painting the town red – without mentally or physically flinging open our wardrobe doors… and sighing in despair.

Like the special occasions they serve, our dressing-up clothes are important to us, the clothes pegs on our timeline, delineating and elevating our everyday life. We choose these clothes with care, we look back at them and smile. Sometimes we cringe (that bright pink Villanelle tiered tent dress – what was I thinking?)

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Lockdowns put paid to going out, but their lifting has prompted a new exhibition at Lotherton Hall. What Shall I Wear: Eveningwear Through the Ages has opened in the fashion galleries, celebrating two centuries of evening and party wear.

This Regency dress could straight out of Bridgerton. Assistant curator Sarah Davies prepares the dress for display at Lotherton Hall. Picture by Tony Johnson.

It showcases the traditional, the opulent, the daring and the downright eccentric looks that have been worn after dusk, with pieces from Norman Hartnell, Jean Varon, Zandra Rhodes and Balenciaga, plus a section on re-wearing and a film with views on eveningwear from people in Leeds.

“With lockdown, there was a lot of talk about everybody going more casual, so we decided to celebrate coming out of it,” says Natalie Raw, curator of dress and textiles at Leeds Museums and Galleries.

“We have a whole selection of little black dresses, and a cocktail dress worn by Jacqueline Brotherton-Ratcliffe, wife of George Brotherton-Ratcliffe, chairman of Brothertons Chemicals. She was born in Leeds but they lived in London.

“The 1960s cocktail dress was bought from Fenwicks in London, and has the Susan Small label. The little black dress would have been your staple garment.”

Assistant curator Sarah Davies with the Norman Hartnell 1930s gown, the 1960s pink cocktail dress, the 1920s beaded jacket and the Regency Bridgerton-style gown, all on display at Lotherton Hall's latest fashion exhibition, What Shall I Wear. Picture Tony Johnson

Coco Chanel put the LBD on the fashion map when one of her designs appeared on the front cover of Vogue in 1927, marking a transition into more casual and simple eveningwear.

“It has stayed there in history since then, but it changes with fashion,” says Natalie. “In the 1960s it was the Audrey Hepburn long black dress in Breakfast at Tiffanys, again that simple but elegant look you can dress up for different occasions or wear more casually to a less formal event.”

The oldest piece in the exhibition, from 1817, looks as if it came straight out of Bridgerton, a yellow-gold silk gauze gown with silk satin detailing on the bodice and piping, all hand sewn. “Although it looks quite simple, the construction would have been really complicated and it would have taken a long time to make,” says Natalie.

“It’s that idea that, for women, eveningwear is where you are allowed, or it is expected, that you show more skin, and that is still something today. In the Regency period and throughout the Victorian period, it was more strict. During the day, you would not be showing your neckline and you would have longer sleeves, but for eveningwear, that is when you would have your opportunity to show more.”

The modern day sherwani. Picture by Ed Hall.

The dress has been copied and downsized so that children can try it on at the exhibition, along with a dinner suit.

An exquisitely beaded jacket from the 1920s or ’30s represents a time when Western culture looked east, towards Japan and China, for inspiration. “In the 1920s, they were also really interested in Egypt because of the Tutenkamen discovery,” adds Natalie. “In this country, kimonos were worn as relaxed wear and that feeds into the designs. Today, everybody talks about cultural appropriation and it is that idea of taking something because it looks nice but not fully understanding the culture it has come from.”

There is a pink cocktail dress from the early 1960s designed by Victor Stiebel, who designed Princess Margaret’s going away outfit. “By the 1920s and 30s, cocktail parties had become really popular, and hosting an early-evening, less formal event, even in your own home, and being the perfect housewife, is where the cocktail dress comes into its own,” says Natalie.

There is also a dress from the 1930s by the Queen’s wedding dress designer Norman Hartnell. Natalie says: “The ’30s was still that era of debutantes, the London season and going out to lots of balls and events, the continuation of that idea of trying to find a husband.”

A jacket from the Hip Hop era of the '80s and '90s with a graffiti design by LSK, Leeds based artist and singer songwriter on display at Lotherton Hall's latest fashion exhibition, What Shall I Wear. Picture Tony Johnson

There is a Ukrainian costume loaned by Olga Callaghan, of Leeds, who said: “My mother embroidered the blouse herself. I’ve loaned it so people can see how beautiful the Ukrainian costume is. It will make me extremely proud to see it on show, particularly with everything that is happening in Ukraine at the moment.”

The exhibition also celebrates British hip hop influences on going-out wear, with a denim jacket and trainers from the 1980s and '90s (now vintage style), and there is a sherwani from 2012.

“It was worn by the lender when he got married and it is worn for weddings now,” says Natalie. “Originally, the sherwani was a loose-fitting garment worn by the Mughal nobility. Once the British were in India, there was this mix of cultures, and seeing the British officials in their frock coats, the sherwani developed a more fitted shape, but they kept the colours.”

* What Shall I Wear: Eveningwear Through the Ages continues at Lotherton Hall until October 16. museumsandgalleries.leeds.gov.uk/events/lotherton

Read More

Read More
Gentleman Jack series 2: Bankfield Museum fashion exhibition opens in time for t...
Assistant curator Sarah Davies with the Norman Hartnell 1930s gown, on display at Lotherton Hall's latest fashion exhibition, What Shall I Wear. Picture Tony Johnson
A collection of sneakers on display at Lotherton Hall's latest fashion exhibition, What Shall I Wear. Picture Tony Johnson
A silk dress and evening bodice from around 1872 on display at Lotherton Hall's latest fashion exhibition, What Shall I Wear. Picture Tony Johnson
Mrs Ida Copeland's evening dress from the 1930's in the Lotherton collection.
Sarah Davies prepares this little black cocktail dress, part of a collection for display at Lotherton Hall's latest fashion exhibition, What Shall I Wear. Picture Tony Johnson