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

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