Forgotten skills refashioned in vintage exhibition

Shelley Tobin with 18th and 19th century repurposed silk gowns. Image: National Trust/Steve Haywood

An exhibition showcasing techniques used to repair, remodel and reuse clothing has opened, as understanding of the environmental impact and water footprint of fashion grows.

Thirsty for Fashion is running at National Trust property Killerton house in Exeter, UK, and features more than 50 items from the eighteenth century to the modern day. The display starts with t-shirts featuring stark messaging about clothes waste, including the fact it takes 3,781 litres water to make one pair of jeans.

"Can we learn lessons from these past practices and reapply forgotten skills to looking after our clothes and make them more sustainable?"

Shelley Tobin, National Trust

Highlights from the historical element of the exhibition include a child’s dress made of precious silk brocade, recycled from an adult’s silk gown in about 1750; a sumptuous silk wedding gown of about 1840, remodelled to wear in the 1940s; and an embroidered parachute silk nightdress made in 1944, when clothing and material were rationed.

Charlotte Eddington and Shelley Tobin adjust a woman’s dressing gown made after the second world war from a surplus army blanket. Materials were in short supply and new clothing rationed. Image: National Trust/Steve Haywood

Also on show will be vintage films from the 1940s and ‘50s with advice on how to ‘make do and mend’, as well as items from contemporary designers and makers who are rethinking the approach to fashion today.

The fashion industry is a huge consumer of water globally, estimated to use around 93 billion cubic metres of water per year, which is 4% of all freshwater extraction globally - to produce just one cotton shirt requires approximately 2,500 litres of water.

Child’s party dress about 1930-40, remodelled from a silk gown of about 1890. Image: National Trust/Steve Haywood

Shelley Tobin, National Trust costume curator at Killerton said, “Recycling and reusing clothing is not a new idea, but something that has been commonplace throughout history.

"This exhibition asks the question - can we learn lessons from these past practices and reapply forgotten skills to looking after our clothes and make them more sustainable? The items exhibited show that we only need look to history to discover ways to ensure that the clothing we buy, make and wear is durable, ethical and avoids waste."

The exhibition also looks to the future, featuring 12 works by six contemporary designers and makers. The pieces show just some of the ways designers are refashioning surplus stock and deadstock to produce new clothing with no waste going to landfill.

Visible mending by Flora Collingwood Norris. Image: Rose Julien Ltd.

Flora Collingwood, one of the exhibition's contemporary designers, is passionate about extending the life of knitwear and creative, visible mending. She said, “By making a feature of visible repairs, we can celebrate the life the garment has had, and make the process of mending more creative and fun. It becomes a statement to be worn with pride.

“Seeing historical and contemporary examples of repair and reuse together in this exhibition is a wonderful way to get excited for a future where we all care for, and reimagine, the things we already own."

Killerton house is home to the National Trust’s biggest fashion collection, with more than 20,000 items of historic clothing and accessories. Thirsty for Fashion runs until 5 November 2023.