Rare and beautiful dresses worn by Carlisle women are wowing visitors to the new costume gallery at Tullie House museum.
The stories of city women, famous and humble, and of events in history, great and small, are being told through a dazzling new display of their dresses.
The garments have been drawing visitors to the new costume gallery at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery since it opened its doors in July.
The gallery is one of the biggest of its kind in the north and showcases 300 years of clothing worn by local women including many items never previously displayed, and some of national importance.
Gabrielle Heffernan, curatorial manager at Tullie House, on Castle Street in Carlisle, thinks it is the stories of the wearers that make the gallery special.
She said: “The really important thing is that we know who almost every item belonged to. It’s a real strength of the collection and not common in costume galleries. They aren’t just clothes, they tell the stories of people.”
One of the beautiful wedding dresses on display has a story to tell, not just of Carlisle but also of world events.
It belonged to Julie Martin, who will be remembered by many as a leading teacher of secretarial skills at Carlisle Technical College.
She came from a local family, with the traditional Great Border City name Armstrong.
Julie married Ken Martin at St James church in 1948 wearing the dress which is made from an unusual white fabric decorated with flowers visible when the light shines on it.
Julie’s daughter Judith Clarke lives in Cumwhitton and is herself a former curator of costumes at Tullie House.
She says: “It is a beautiful dress. I would have loved to have worn it to my own wedding, but I was too tall. It is woven with shiny and matt areas so that it shimmers in the light.
“It has padded shoulders which was fashionable then and has covered buttons down the back and on the wrist. It also had a train. It is very elegant. She was a very good looking, quite beautiful young woman. She obviously loved the dress.”
Luckily Julie wrote her autobiography for her family before she passed away in 2011, and it includes the story of the dress.
“She got the material for the dress through a former employee of the Ferguson’s works at Holme Head,” explained Judith.
“She somehow managed to get fabric that was intended for export. Rationing was still very strict at that time, and she only managed to get it through the help of other people with clothing coupons.
“Perhaps they gave her extra coupons so she could afford it. She doesn’t say how much it cost.”
The bridesmaids’ dresses had their own wartime connection.
Chief bridesmaid was to be a friend called Mary Walker who was in Berlin working for the British Army of Occupation of the Rhine, following the end of the war.
Judith said: “She was arranging for the bridesmaid dresses to be made there and she would bring them over.
“There was a thriving black market in Germany at the time, and she managed to get the material. But just before she could come back for the wedding there was the Berlin Blockade.”
The blockade was a notorious international crisis sparked by the Soviet Union blocking access to parts of Berlin which were under Western control, during the international occupation of Germany after World War Two.
“It meant that Mary was unable to come back, and so she sent the dresses through the diplomatic post bag,” Judith added, “They arrived just in time on the morning of the wedding.”
Another friend stepped in as chief bridesmaid.
“I’m sure she would be pleased to see her dress in the new exhibition,” said Judith.
“In itself it is a lovely, lovely dress. But then it also has this history, and associations with my mother and with life in Carlisle, and links to the war and Germany. It is quite a story.”