The rare and gorgeous dresses worn by the women of Carlisle amaze visitors to Tullie House’s new costume gallery.
The stories of the city’s women – famous and humble – and the events of history, big and small, are told through a dazzling new display of their dresses.
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The clothes have attracted visitors to the new costume gallery at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle since it opened in July.
One of the beautiful wedding dresses on display has a story to tell, not only of Carlisle but also of world events.
It belonged to Julie Martin, whom many will remember as one of the principal secretarial professors at Carlisle Technical College.
She came from a local family, with the traditional name of Great Border City Armstrong.
Julie married Ken Martin at St James’s Church in 1948 wearing the dress which is made of an unusual white fabric, decorated with flowers visible when the light shines on it.
Julie’s daughter, Judith Clarke, lives in Cumwhitton and is herself a former costume curator at Tullie House.
She said, “It’s a beautiful dress. I would have loved to wear it to my own wedding, but I was too tall. It is woven of shiny and matte areas so that it glows in the light.
“It has padded shoulders that were all the rage at the time and covered buttons on the back and cuff. There was also a train. It is very elegant. She was a very beautiful, very beautiful young woman. She obviously loved the dress.
Fortunately, Julie wrote her autobiography for her family before she passed away in 2011, and she understands the story of the dress.
“She got the material for the dress through a former Ferguson works employee at Holme Head,” Judith said.
“She was successful in obtaining fabric for export. The rationing was still very strict at that time, and she only managed to get it with the help of other people with clothing coupons. Maybe they gave her some extra coupons so she could afford it. She doesn’t say how much it costs.
Bridesmaids’ dresses had their own wartime connection.
The chief maid of honor was to be a friend called Mary Walker who worked in Berlin for the British occupation army of the Rhine after the end of the war.
Judith continued, “She was doing the tailoring of the bridesmaids’ dresses and she would bring them.
“There was a thriving black market in Germany at the time, and she was able to get the material. But just before she could come back for the wedding, there was the blockade of Berlin.
The blockade was a notorious international crisis triggered by the Soviet Union blocking access to parts of Berlin that were under Western control, during the international occupation of Germany after World War II.
Judith added: “This meant that Mary couldn’t come back, so she sent the dresses by the diplomatic bag.
“They arrived just in time on the morning of the wedding.”
Another friend stepped in as the head bridesmaid.
“I’m sure she would love to see her dress in the new exhibit,” Judith said.
“In itself, it’s a pretty, pretty dress. But there is also this history, and associations with my mother and with life in Carlisle, and links with the war and Germany. It’s quite a story. “
The gallery is one of the largest of its kind in the north. It showcases 300 years of clothing worn by local women, including many items never before exhibited, and some of national significance.
Gabrielle Heffernan, curator at Tullie House, on Castle Street in Carlisle, believes it’s the porters’ stories that make the gallery special.
She said: “The really important thing is that we know who owned almost every item. It is a real strength of the collection and not very common in costume galleries. They’re not just clothes, they tell people’s stories.
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