Dressmaker and Costume Historian
Reconstructing Lady Darnley’s Wardrobe of April 1914
May 10, 2014
When I first saw this photograph of Lady Darnley it piqued my interest immediately. I thought, ‘What an intriguing outfit’. The chance to research it further, and reconstruct it for The Rochester Bridge Trust’s 2014 exhibition was a great opportunity. However, it was not as simple as it first appeared…
My first port of call was to scour the original fashion plates and ladies magazines I have in my collection looking for designs that were similar in style. This is also a good place to look for information on fashionable colours and fabrics. Though fashions can change rapidly, there tends to be a general trend over a couple of years and high fashion takes time to water down to the mass audience. This time lag is something to take into account so I used a number of primary sources from 1912, 1913 and early 2014, to enhance my understanding of ladies suiting styles.
I was further inspired by the original garments in my collection from the period, including a dress with matching jacket, a skirt suit and a number of blouses. These provided an insight into construction details, choice of fabrics and design details for the period.
Finally, I consulted online costume archives to see what designers had created as these would have been very influential in the designs available to people like Lady Darnley. We do not know where her suit was made but, I believe it was more than likely she had a loyal dressmaker, either locally or in London, who she used. This would have been an outfit tailored exclusively for her and inspired by the fashions seen in Paris. This suit is unlike anything I came across in my research and certainly shows Lady Darnley had a unique style. The ruffling effect is particularly different and the abundance of lace is reminiscent of earlier fashions. Overall the impression is that she wanted to look fashionable but retain certain styles, fabrics and features she was comfortable with.
Though the photograph is taken from the front, it is actually very hard to see exactly was Lady Darnley is wearing. Clearly a skirt and jacket of some kind, but a number of questions were immediately raised. Is she wearing a dress, or a skirt and blouse? Both are equally popular ensembles in 1914. Where does all the lace around the front originate from, are they additional decoration or attached to what she is wearing underneath? Etc. etc.
A number of things are clear. She has enhanced the outfit with a feather boa and lace, and accessorised it with a fabric handbag and hat. We cannot see her footwear but I am confident that, due to the style of the outfit, the occasion, and the time of year that she would have been wearing shoes rather than boots. Upon close inspection she is not wearing gloves, but she would have been carrying them as they were an integral part of any ladies outfit of the time. Though the suit is a reconstruction I took the time to source an original feather boa, lace, shoes, handbag and gloves as I felt this gave real age to the piece.
The hat, however, did have to be made as I found after months of searching that it was impossible to find a hat in a similar shape. It is also not a style of hat that was top fashion for 1914 and so I like to think that she chose it because she liked it and it was a style she thought to suit her. I have chosen to cover the hat to match the outfit, as once again, it is hard to decipher from the photograph exactly what the hat is made from.
Any type of silk was very popular for affluent ladies wear and due to the sheen and crispness evident in the photograph; silk taffeta was the most likely for Lady Darnley’s suit. The choice of colour was limited due to, not only modern availability, but also the popularity of colours in the period. Due to the darkness of the suit in the photographs, a dark colour was most likely. Deep reds, purples and greens were popular; navy doesn’t become particularly popular until the war.
In the photograph Lady Darnley has her hands at waist level which makes it difficult to see the fastening of the jacket. Plus, the presence of the lace and feather boa make it impossible to see what the lapels, collar and front of the jacket looked like. For the reconstruction I have based all these features on examples displayed on contemporary costume found in my collection. The skirt is a simple, unadorned straight design, popular in the years preceding 1914.
My main area of confusion was the ruffling you can see under/on the jacket. Long over-skirts or peplums were very popular in the years before the war, but I found nothing similar to what Lady Darnley is wearing. Most are longer and smooth rather than short and ruffled. So was the ruffling part of the jacket? This is an area I considered at length, and concluded that it must be part of the jacket as would look odd on the skirt once the jacket was removed. However, one day another example, or a fashion plate, may emerge that will shed more light on this design feature.
I decided to complete a suit with a blouse underneath as this was a very popular style and one advised, in a publication in my collection for ladies of a mature age, rather than a dress. I chose to go for a large frill front blouse, a style very popular in 1913/14, so that the lace could fall outside the jacket as seen in the photograph.
Under the main outfit Lady Darnley would be wearing all the layers expected of a woman from this period. Most likely a pair of fine cotton lawn combinations (split for her convenience), a Delectoire corset to provide the fashionable silhouette, a corset cover to keep it clean, silk stockings held up by suspenders on the corset, and numerous cotton and/or taffeta petticoats. If it was a cold April day she may have included a flannel one to keep warm!
This project threw up many questions about womenswear in 1914 and provides a lovely example of an outfit worn by a real woman, hinting at fashion, but retaining a style that the wearer is comfortable with. When looking at the photograph of Lady Darnley and her outfit you may interpret her clothes differently, or spot clues that I didn’t. I know that for every design decision I made there was at least one other option I could have chosen, but based on all the sources at my disposal and the materials available, I believe this to be an accurate reconstruction of the suit worn by Lady Darnley in April 1914.