Visits to museums and the British Library

The training course with the London College of Fashion was followed by visits to three museums and the British Library. At the Museum of London in Barbican Hilary Davidson provided two workshops, where about twenty five complete dresses and other items were brought out from their store to show the group and provide explanations of how they were constructed. Most of the items seen covered the period from late 1700s to early 1800s. The museum seems to have one of the largest collection of muslin dresses worn by British ladies.

 Workshop at Museum of London. By Kind permission of the Museum of London

When the group visited the The Victoria and Albert Museum they were able to see many items of actual muslin fabrics in the their collection and discuss with Rosemary Crill and Sonia Ashmore to gain a better understanding of Indian and Bengal textiles stored at the museum and about the muslin fabrics collection at the institution.

 Workshop at V&A

The visit to the National Maritime Museum consisted of a tour of a new section on East India Company called ‘Traders Gallery’, where Dr John McAleer (former curator) provided valuable information about how Indian / Bengal and Asian textiles transformed British fashion and clothing scene from the 17th century onwards. He also explained how textiles goods were transported by the East India Company ships and their evolution during the long periods of contacts with Asia as a result of improvements in navigational and ship technology. Amy Miller, another curator at the museum gave a workshop on how and why muslin became very popular in the 18th Century. She pointed out that it was the love of everything classical Greek that developed in the UK during the 18th century that explains the popularity of muslin fabrics.

Guided tour of the ‘Traders Gallery’, National Maritime Museum

According to Amy, many British travellers to Italy and Greece during the 18th Century developed a fascination for everything classical which was a very important factor in muslin’s popularity. This was because as the fabrics were very soft and could drape easily around bodies just like images of Greek figures found in white dresses on white sculptures. Another advantage of the muslin fabrics as mentioned was that it took paint very easily. This meant that elaborate designs could be printed on them with ease and speed unlike silk and linen which were also available at that time and worn widely. Ability to incorporate new designs very easily meant that the muslin fabrics allowed merchants to respond more quickly to consumer demands and changes in tastes.

The visit to British Library was designed to provide the participants with knowledge of the sources of information. By looking at East India Company records of orders and the delivery of Indian textiles to England, including Bengal muslin fabrics, the participants would develop a better appreciation of the project’s significance. They would be able to see for themselves the true scale of the textiles imported from Bengal by the East India Company. In addition, if they wanted, they could undertake further studies into the subject area, knowing where to go for information and how to access them.

Workshop at the British Library. © The British Library Board

The workshop at British Library was run by Penny Brooks and Dr Margaret Makepeace. They showed the group examples of various types of records kept at the library, which included on orders that were sent out from London, items that came back from India, how they were then sold to merchants and buyers in the UK, etc. Old newspaper cutting with reports and merchants publicising the arrival of new muslin stocks, inviting potential buyers to come to such a place and such a time were also displayed for the project participants. The second part of the workshop consisted of a tour of the Asia reading room to show where the records are kept, how to cross reference and access records. Details of the process of ordering handwritten records which are kept in separate stores and how to become a member of the library were also explained.

How Villages and Towns in Bengal Dressed London Ladies in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries