British folk costumes finally get the focus they deserve

British folk costumes finally get the focus they deserve
A woman dressed as a Morris dancer © In Pictures via Getty Images

Simon Costin, the art director and former Alexander McQueen collaborator who founded the Museum of British Folklore in 2009, has wanted to curate an exhibition on folk costume at a major art institution for more than a decade. He recalls presenting a selection of costumes to one such institution in London, but “their head of textiles gingerly fingered a sleeve and said, ‘They aren’t very well made, are they?’ I knew they didn’t have a clue what they were looking at, or why it was important”.

Working alongside Amy de la Haye of the London College of Fashion and Mellany Robinson of the Museum of British Folklore, Costin has finally got his wish — or nearly — with an exhibition at Compton Verney manor in Warwickshire called Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain. “[Folk costume has] been overlooked by institutions for decades, perhaps because it’s constantly shifting and mutating,” Costin says. “There are hundreds of seasonal customs in Britain, and all the costumes on display give an insight into the varied communities that uphold these events and rituals, from St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney to Padstow in Cornwall.”

The line between costume and fashion can be blurry, but the former often feeds the latter. For evidence, look to the clothes Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren created together in the early 1980s, which drew partly on McLaren’s fascination with South American folk costume. Look also to Gabriela Hearst’s spring/summer 2023 show, where models strode out as if dressed for a ritual in gold leather, crochet and knit dresses wreathed in flames. Casting climate activist Xiye Bastida and former president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards as models reinforced the point that this wasn’t just a fashion show for Hearst; this was a coming together of community. It was intended to celebrate and embolden. Which is what folk costume does.

At the annual Festival of the Horse and Ploughing Match on South Ronaldsay, Orkney Islands, girls dress as horses . .. © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

. . . where they are judged on the appearance of their harness and decorations © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

In the summer of 2019, after a conversation with Costin, London-based designer Charles Jeffrey travelled with his team to Orkney to take in one of the highlights of the folk calendar, the Festival of the Horse and Ploughing Match. The event — where locals dress in giant yoke collars, highly decorated with haberdashery and trinkets, and engage in ritualised ploughing — inspired Jeffrey’s autumn/winter 2020 collection.

“I’m Scottish but didn’t recognise this as familiar. It appeared to be more African or Norwegian,” he says. “We incorporated patterns [we saw there] in the collection, each originating from a certain family on the island.”

Costin has included the garments Jeffrey saw on the northern isles of Scotland, which are shown alongside pieces from the Jack in the Green, a four-day festival celebrating the arrival of spring in Hastings, which Costin himself takes part in.

“The [Festival of the Horse] came about as a way of impressing on children’s minds the importance of the farming year and of the horse as an animal that has been domesticated and used within farming for millennia,” says Costin. “When I first went to witness the event in Orkney, I was overcome by the way in which the entire community are all totally invested in the tradition, resulting in some of the most extraordinary costumes I have ever seen.” 

Charles Jeffrey Loverboy autumn/winter 23 © Pablo Latorre

Matty Bovan spring/summer 23 © Monica Feudi for Matty Bovan supported by Dolce & Gabbana

Orkney also resonates with designer John Alexander Skelton, who presented a collection last month with a film made there, capturing clothing decorated with symbols found on Neolithic sites. “A lot of my work is inspired by folk costume, and how it’s made in a quite naive but nuanced way,” he says. “Mummers’ plays, common in folk festivals, really stand out for me, for the amazing trousers the players wear and the embroidery.”

One of the most striking examples of queer folk costume can be found in the work of London designer Matty Bovan, who won the LVMH Graduate Prize in 2015. His work is exuberant, channelling the folk vernacular through materials and prints.

Bovan remembers being captivated by images of the Burryman, Morris dancers and the ’Obby ’Oss, from festivals in Yorkshire, Scotland and Cornwall as a child. “I felt a deep affinity with British folklore — part old world craft, part local stories passed down,” he says. “Craft and skill are integral to my work, handed down from generation to generation.”

The exhibition opens with a portrait of Oliver Cromwell from the Compton Verney collection, before moving on to a chronological exploration of costumes and customs from the 17th century to the present day.

It is commonly believed that Cromwell abolished Christmas when he assumed power, an erroneous notion that Costin wishes to debunk, together with the clichéd Midsommar pagan ritual. “The whole notion of the ‘pagan’ is a huge misnomer and basically a hangover from historians who wistfully liked to link seasonal customs back to some reimagined, mythical, pre-Christian past,” says Costin. These events developed in the 17th and 18th centuries and began to regain popularity in the 1970s.

A Boss Morris performer © Jonathan Cherry and The Simple Things
Players in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, c1900 © Sir John Benjamin Stone

Folk costume is constantly mutating and adapting to modern times. Troupes who traditionally used coal-black make-up have switched to other colours.

“I think people will come away with an increased awareness of the richness of British folk customs and the diversity of it,” says Costin, who included costumes from Notting Hill Carnival, the Leeds Carnival and Chinese new year in the exhibition. “None of these [festivals] are state-sanctioned, these are all things that have grown out of a desire of a particular community to celebrate something, and that’s what folklore is. These things aren’t necessarily historic, they are happening right now.”

‘Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain’ runs until June 11 2023.

This article has been amended since publication to reflect that the folk festivals mentioned date from the 17th and 18th centuries

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