A Pink Silk Spencer, c.1815, by Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume, Chertsey Museum

Chertsey Museum is the local authority museum for the Borough of Runnymede and is funded by Runnymede Borough Council with support from the Olive Matthews Collections Trust. Olive Matthews was twelve years old when she began to collect and her interest was in historic costume, whose only value at the time was for fancy dress or theatrical costume. Matthews continued her collecting for the next forty years and worked within a very strict budget, only buying pieces that were £5 and under. Grace Evans works with this spectacular collection as the Chertsey Museums’ Keeper of Costumes. Grace’s blog post below is drawn from the Chertsey’s own blog from a series calling 'Unbreakable Threads – Dressing through Adversity' which can be accessed here. Grace's online blog focuses on some of the most interesting events and projects relating to the nationally significant collection of dress at Chertsey Museum.

"Chertsey Museum was delighted to be involved in this year’s Two Temple Place exhibition – Unbound, Visionary Women Collecting Textiles; lending an important group of garments from the Olive Matthews Collection of Dress. One of these pieces was a beautiful pink silk Spencer. This item can be interpreted in so many different ways, but here I have chosen to look at it from the point of view of its historical context:

I am about to explore one of the most loved and cherished articles of dress from the Olive Matthews Collection; a Spencer which dates to around 1815. At first glance this piece might be thought a rather frivolous item. Some might see it as a pretty, girlish garment which was probably worn by a privileged member of society; but allow me to dig a little deeper. Not only does this complicated and intricately made article hail from a time of great political instability, but the conflicts of the era have left their mark quite clearly on the style of the Spencer itself. 

Silk Spencer, c.1815,  ©  The Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Images by John Chase Photography.

Covered in complex hand-worked decoration, this pale pink silk taffeta Spencer is lined with white cotton. It is embellished with complex applied decoration of rouleau loops and leaf shapes edged with piping. The cut is designed to follow the high waisted bodices of the period. Spencers were usually worn over the white muslin dresses which were so fashionable during the early years of the 19th century. Part of ‘Walking Dress’ until the mid-1820s, which might also have incorporated a matching hat or bonnet, Spencers were usually made from coloured silk. This silk fabric provided a more structured contrast to the soft, flowing muslin of the dress beneath, as well as giving a little protection from the cold. It is important to remember when looking at this garment that every element of it has been made by hand. Such time-consuming work is a hallmark of the outerwear and accessories of the early 19th century, which saw a flowering of intricately worked applied decoration, particularly in the form of rouleaux. These qualities are doubtless what particularly attracted Olive Matthews to this piece when she first acquired it during the early 20th century. This charming Spencer is a perennially popular garment with visitors and researchers alike. Both fashion students and designers have been inspired by it, and a version is even to be found in the recent film adaptation of Emma. The film’s costume designer Alexandra Byrne viewed it at Chertsey Museum as part of her research. 

The dating of this garment to around 1815 is interesting because it was of course the year of the Battle of Waterloo. This most famous of battles finally brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars, which had been raging throughout Europe since 1803. A period of major conflicts between different coalitions, it had resulted in part from the instability stirred up by the French Revolution. After coming to power in 1799 and establishing France on a firmer footing both economically and militarily, Napoleon embarked on a period of aggressive conquests and empire building. This, for a brief time, resulted in French control over much of Europe before the Emperor was subdued by the combined forces of his enemies, of which Britain was a major player. The campaigns and battles of the Napoleonic Wars raged from Russia to the Iberian Peninsula, and tens of thousands of troops of different nationalities waged war, marched and occasionally looted and pillaged their way through the nations of Europe. The civilian population of Britain remained physically separate from all this conflict, but the threat came dangerously close at times, especially during the famous Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. 

Returning now to the Spencer; this form of clothing is said to have originated in the 1790s and been named after George, 2nd Earl Spencer, a Whig politician, connoisseur and collector of books. The story goes that he had a tailcoat modified and shortened after the tails were caught and burnt in a fire. It is said to have been the forerunner of the military mess jacket, but also gave its name to the shortened women’s jacket that we see here. That there should have been a military connection is unsurprising considering the turbulent era that it comes from. However, more telling perhaps is the decoration of our Spencer, which has a distinctly military feel. The leaf shapes at the shoulders form something akin to epaulettes, and the decoration at the cuffs is reminiscent of the braiding found on the uniforms of officers. 

Silk Spencer, c.1815,  ©  The Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Images by John Chase Photography.

The group of soldiers that particularly captured the public imagination, at the time and for many years later, were the Hussars. Taking their name from Hungarian military horsemen, these cavalry regiments proliferated across Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was rather late to the party, only naming light cavalry regiments Hussars after 1806 when the Prince of Wales was particularly taken with their swashbuckling image. British Hussar regiments saw action during many of the key conflicts of the era, including the Battle of Corunna in January 1809 and the Battle of Vitoria in Spain in 1813. Hussars were also incorporated into the brigade that charged the French cavalry and infantry at the Battle of Waterloo. The colourful uniforms of these dashing light cavalry regiments were particularly elaborate and only served to fuel their public image which identified them as a notorious, fearless and elite group of fighters. Generally moustachioed, they wore a ‘Dolman’ or short, fitted jacket with horizontal gold or silver braiding on the breast with lines of braid also embellishing the cuffs. A matching ‘Pelisse’ or short over-jacket, similarly decorated, was slung over one shoulder and tight trousers, reinforced with leather to prevent wear when riding, were worn, often with braid stitched along the side seam. A busby was the usual head wear and ‘Hessian’ boots; tight leather boots cut with a curve at the front and decorated with a braid tassel were generally worn. A sabre completed the outfit. 

It is any wonder that the Hussars inspired a number of civilian fashions during the early 19th century? These included the wearing of tightly fitted coats and Hessian boots for men and elements of uniform-inspired cut and decoration in women’s wear as evidenced in our own Spencer jacket. The design, which somehow manages to achieve the dual qualities of femininity and sharp up-to-the-minute style, is clearly the product, either consciously or subconsciously, of an era of political upheaval and heightened military activity. 

Installation view of Silk Spencer, c.1815,  ©  The Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Photography by Richard Eaton Photography.

The Olive Matthews Collection is a nationally significant group of over 6,000 items of men’s, women’s and children’s dress and accessories. Pieces date from 1600 to the present day. The collection is housed at Chertsey Museum in Surrey. For more information see: www.chertseymuseum.org "


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