Just when you least expect it, a real gem of a television series comes along. You’re gathered in. Then you’re hooked!
And that was our experience with fashion historian Amber Butchart’s six part series, A Stitch In Time, recently screened on BBC4.
This is what Amber has to say about the series on her blog: Fusing biography, art and the history of fashion, throughout A Stitch in Time I get to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore, while key garments are recreated using the original techniques.
She peers into the mirror and helps us to interpret the costume clues held within Van Eyck’s mysterious Arnolfini portrait, the role of hand-me-downs among 18th century workers, the impact of cotton on British life, a flamboyant armorial piece which sits at odds with the allegedly brutal nature of its wearer and the impact a scandalously informal gown would have on an already unpopular queen.
What an eye-opener A Stitch in Time has been! And from what I’ve seen in various media, we are not alone in being enthralled by the series.
My wife Steph and I enjoy watching almost any history-related program, so tuned into the first episode on 3 January almost by default. We had no idea what to expect, and we’d never heard of Amber Butchart (herself a fashion icon) even though (as I’ve now discovered) she has broadcast regularly over the past four or five years on BBC radio.
To recreate the items of clothing, Amber relied on the talents and experience of historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila and her team, Harriet Waterhouse and Hannah Marples. It was amazing to see how every item of clothing was hand stitched. Not a sewing machine is sight, nor an electric iron.
In each program Amber talked about a particular painting—and a tomb effigy in one program—and what each tells us about the person(s) portrayed, how their clothing speaks to us about their social status, and the society in which they lived. And then she enjoyed modeling each of the recreated costumes.
She also delved into other background issues that are part of the story, none perhaps more emotive than that of Dido Belle, born in 1761 the natural (i.e. illegitimate) daughter of Sir John Lindsay and a slave, who moved in the highest circles of English aristocracy since her great uncle was Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. I was already familiar with her story having read the 2014 book that same year by Paula Byrne.
Choosing the topics
I asked Amber how she came to choose the six subjects for the series. She replied: I wanted to show a real range of clothing from history—not just womenswear and royalty. I also wanted to touch on stories that are harder to uncover, to show the difficulties that can be part of the process when looking at marginalised histories. So I chose the artworks for a mixture of these reasons—plus some which are more well known within fashion history, such as Marie Antoinette and Charles II.
Charles was the subject of the first program (depicted receiving a pineapple from his head gardener, in a painting from around 1667, now part of the Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) and “how he used fashion as propaganda with an outfit that foreshadowed the three piece suit”. From what appeared a rather drab suit of clothes in the painting, the completed reconstruction was extremely elegant, with its shot silk lining and black silk ‘bows’ on the trousers, shoulder and sleeves. The other fashion statement is the fantastic number of handmade buttons and their corresponding button-holes.The second program considered the famous Arnolfini portrait by Van Eyck from 1434, that hangs today in the National Gallery.
Once thought to portray a pregnant Mrs Arnolfini, wife of a wealthy merchant, this is no longer believed to be the case. She’s just holding up the rather large amount of cloth that went into making her dress—just because she could, a sign of the family’s wealth. The resulting recreation was stunning, and it was also interesting to watch how the green dye was made. Not for those of a weak olfactory constitution!
The ‘common man’ was the subject of the third program, depicted in a full-size portrait at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire. Portraits of working men are uncommon. Just take a visit to any National Trust property, as Steph and I do all year round, and there are a thousand and one portraits of members of the aristocracy in all their finery. Such statements of power and fashion!
But The Hedge Cutter at Broughton shows a working man wearing a hand-me-down leather coat, evidently worn by several generations and generously patched. It’s dark and stained, tattered in places.
The coat expertly recreated by Ninya and her team from soft, pale leather was a delight to behold. Even more compelling were the sewing techniques they had to employ to join the expensive pieces of leather together.
The story of Dido Belle in Program 4, was particularly interesting. In the painting of Dido (with Lady Elizabeth Murray), on display at Scone Palace in Scotland, not all of her dress can be seen, so Ninya and her team had to interpret how it might have been made.
Calling upon all their knowledge and experience, they recreated a dress that they believe was close to the original. Ninya confirmed to me that Dido’s clothes were the biggest challenge to research, mainly because so much of them are obscured in the painting, and because very little survives in the way of informal dress. Loose, voluminous garments made from expensive silk are prime targets for being made over, cut and reused. As we said in the programme, we were very happy with the results, but there were definitely several possible answers for how this gown was actually cut and constructed!
The Black Prince, son of King Edward III and father of King Richard II, is buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and Amber took us to look at the prince’s gilt-bronze tomb effigy, which shows the item of clothing that was the focus of this episode. The prince is wearing a jupon, a close-fitting tunic worn over a suit of armor and bearing heraldic arms. Warriors wore such an item of clothing in battle so they could be recognized and serve as a rallying point for their troops.
What was particularly interesting about this program (5) is that the prince’s original jupon still exists although no longer on display. After 600 years it’s just too fragile. But after his death in 1376, the jupon was hung above the prince’s tomb and remained there for centuries. Now stored carefully away in a box at the cathedral, the jupon no longer displays its vibrant colors, and although there was perhaps less interpretation needed to reconstruct it, there were still some challenges. The principal one was how to sew the cotton protective wadding between the layers of linen as a backing and the red and blue velvet of the outer layer.
Nevertheless, the completed garment was the most exuberant of the series. As Ninya told me: I loved working on the Black Prince’s jupon. It was an incredibly time-consuming process but it was so rewarding seeing it emerge in all its brightly coloured, gold-embellished glory!
Apparently the gold embroidery alone took 900 hours to complete, stitched on to a linen backing, cut out, and then sewn on to the jupon. Stunning!
In the final programme, Amber explained the court reaction to the most unroyal-like muslin dress (chemise de la reine) worn by the unpopular Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, in an infamous portrait painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1783. Such was the uproar, that the artist had to paint another portrait in a more appropriate dress worthy of a French queen. Muslin was used for undergarments, not for royal portraits. Vigée Le Brun painted more than 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette.
The recreation was an elegant, free-flowing gown, but not (to our modern eyes) the scandalous display for which Marie Antoinette was censured. She would have worn this type of dress in informal settings such as her retreat in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, the Petit Trianon, surrounded by intimates. Underneath the dress Marie Antoinette would have worn stays, and these were also part of the recreation. Ninya told me: . . . the silk damask stays that Harriet made for Marie Antoinette were ridiculously beautiful. There was an elegant sash at the waist, made by Hannah.
Even though the dress looks simple in style, it would nevertheless have been costly to make in the 18th century, as was demonstrated in its reconstruction. Ninya also gave a useful tip to all budding seamstresses on how to make a level hem. Tip of the series!
On reflection, I found the story of Dido Belle the most compelling. And while her dress appeared the most simple among the six, it was, as Ninya told me, a challenge for her team.
But as I think back on the last program and the beautiful dress that was worn by Marie Antoinette, I have to say that was my favorite. Elegant in its ‘simplicity’.
I asked Amber which costume she found the most challenging. This is what she told me: The most challenging to research in many ways was Dido Belle, and also the Hedge Cutter. Researching working dress can be difficult as it doesn’t tend to be kept in museums and wasn’t seriously written about until relatively recently. Dido has a really compelling story, and the transatlantic slave trade played a huge part in our history but is often overlooked. It runs like a thread through fashion history as it relates to cotton, and so I felt it needed to be addressed.
But what was her favorite costume? Having discovered online (from an interview she once gave) that green is apparently her favorite color, I expected her to choose the Arnolfini dress. But no!
In terms of aesthetic, I love the Charles II suit and would absolutely wear it, she replied (in the photo above it does really look elegant on her). In terms of uniqueness of experience, she continued, and historical revelation, it would be the Black Prince’s jupon. Such an incredible experience to literally walk in his shoes, and so far from the clothing that we’re used to today. Experimental archaeology at its best!
So there you have it.
I don’t think I’ll look at a portrait again in quite the same way during one of my many National Trust visits. This series has certainly opened my eyes to another aspect of social history that had, until now, passed me by.
If I have one criticism of the series, it would be this. Each program was short by about 15 minutes, that would have allowed just a little more time to explore the background story, and to focus in on some more detail of the actual techniques for making the costumes. BBC producers take note!
So, I hope that the BBC will commission another series, and allocate sufficient air time to do justice to this fascinating subject. Amber Butchart’s A Stitch in Time has been a joy to watch. This is why we willingly pay the TV licence fee.