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Treasury of historic clothing revealed at Westminster Abbey

One of the stranger customs of bygone years has left us with a rich collection of costume through the ages of the ruling and upper classes. The crypt museum in Westminster Abbey has a collection of fully clothed funeral effigies dating back to the fourteenth century. These effigies were used, for the ceremonial funerals, as due to the length of time they took to plan it was highly unsuitable to even consider using the real bodies. The effigies and clothes are currently in the hands of conservators, as the Abbey is in the process of moving the exhibits to a new location in the Triforium, the roof of the abbey.

Costume historians are having an interesting time, as all the clothing has to be carefully removed by the conservators. It also was not just a case that the effigies were merely clothed in the top and visible layer of clothing. They were dressed in the same way, and number of layers that the original person was. Hence they have found a chamois leather trimmed corset of Elizabeth I, and a dainty pair of silk underwear belonging to Charles II. To say nothing of the five layers of petticoats belonging to Frances, Duchess of Richmond.

Although the initial effigies were simply made with carved wooden heads, and cloth legs stuffed with straw, with technological advances soon the models were wax with incredibly lifelike glass eyes. Perhaps though the sight that brought a tear to the tie of the conservators was the effigy of the Marquess of Normanby, who was only three when he died. His tiny effigy was dressed in a Spitalfield’s silk gown and peach velvet coat. Both were tailored to take the reins that he was still wearing.

There are several Royal effigies in the collection, including Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Charles II, and William and Mary. Even in the eighteenth century, people used to pay their pennies to see them. However, time took its toll on them and by the nineteenth century they were referred to as the Ragged Regiment. This is not the first time attempts have been made to clean the costumes, conservators have found dry cleaning labels on some of them.

Now we can look forward to seeing the restored costumes on their effigies, in their new home soon.

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