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Behind the scenes at Hampshire Wardrobe in Winchester

PUBLISHED: 10:29 15 October 2019

Costumes include military uniforms, which have been worn in Horrible Histories and (Photo by Alex Walker)

Costumes include military uniforms, which have been worn in Horrible Histories and (Photo by Alex Walker)

Archant

Behind the scenes at a Winchester fancy dress shop with a difference - whose wares can be seen on stage, film and television

There's a wonderful sense of going back in time wandering amongst the hallowed racks of Hampshire Wardrobe.

From the frills and sumptuous brocade of the Georgians to the utility chic of land girl territory, it is a far cry from the average fancy dress shop. Located just a stone's throw from the centre of Winchester, Hampshire Wardrobe has been offering its veritable treasure trove of period dress, historical costume and vintage wear for hire to film companies, theatrical productions and media groups as well as schools, researchers and those looking to wear something with a little more authenticity at events such as the Goodwood Revival. Although the collection started some 40 years ago, in 2014 Hampshire Wardrobe transferred from the guardianship of the Hampshire Arts and Museums Service and was rebranded to become part of Hampshire Cultural Trust. Keen to capitalise on its rich treasury, Havva Buckles, wardrobe supervisor and Dr Alex Walker, assistant supervisor alongside their team and volunteers have set about transforming access to the archive and championing its offering to a much wider audience.

"It's fancy dress but not fancy dress as you'd know it. It's a shock to the system if you haven't been to us before," shares Havva. "We have so many original outfits in the wardrobe. It's not like ordering a costume online. It's about hiring out something genuinely vintage."

Alex's extensive knowledge of the collection and Havva's years of experience working in TV, film and theatre as a wardrobe mistress and costumier make them a formidable team when it comes to the appointment-only service they offer. It's one which is more akin to a bridal consultation or tailoring service as Havva explains.

"When someone books an appointment, they get time with us. We style them, give tips on hair or makeup and make sure that each hire is faithful to their chosen period - I like it to be a bit like immersive theatre. It's about going away with an outfit that which brings confidence, that looks and feels like it's yours and not borrowed."

It's this attention to detail and the team's careful curation of nearly 11,000 costumes and accessories which has led to the Wardrobe's increasingly impressive client list. Many pieces over the years have been sourced, made or adjusted for the likes of Woodcut Media, Shoreditch Pictures, the BBC, History Bombs and Horrible Histories to productions at Mayflower Theatre, West Green Opera and beyond. Items have even appeared on the catwalk at Winchester Fashion Week.

One of the key innovations which Alex has implemented in her 11 years at Hampshire Wardrobe is the creation of educational loan boxes designed to help bring history to life in and out of the classroom. From the Egyptians to World War II, these offer pupils in primary and secondary education a chance to engage in role-play, handle artefacts and allow a more interactive experience through looking at clothing of the period.

"It's just another way we can help recreate and continue a rich oral history and retell these stories because you can see things and feel them," explains Alex. "It's about getting people excited about the past."

Although fashion and costume are often thought of with frivolity, Alex and Havva believe that there's a more serious side to it all - sharing pieces of social history which offer inspiration to another generation.

"Clothes are really an expression of identity. A lot of social impact projects which Hampshire Cultural Trust are involved in are about young people struggling with issues of identity and being heard," Alex says. "To think about clothing through time as self-expression is a good way of helping them explore their own feelings."

As part of Hampshire Cultural Trust's Horizon 2020 projects, one of the initiatives Alex has been working on is a project aimed at engaging with young people from pupil referral units who struggle in a traditional classroom environment.

"We recently ran a workshop which focused on creating character through costume. The young lads were given a mannequin and free rein of the collection to interpret and develop their characters' biographies for themselves. It was wonderful to see them engaging with all aspects of the task. So much discussion came out of it from boys who don't normally seek interaction with teachers or other adults because of anxiety issues," she smiles.

The intention is to expand their educational reach in the future and Alex and Havva have begun to look at how GCSE and A-Level drama students interested in costume design or those wishing to look at textiles as part of their study programme could be supported.

"So many of our original pieces have become standalone items. Individual works of art which were made 80 years ago for a particular production that have become vintage gems," Havva says as she unveils a Regency dress from the wider collection of museum pieces owned by Hampshire Cultural Trust. It has already been used as a research model.

With sustainability at the forefront of the future of the fashion industry, there's much to be said about an archive encouraging a move away from disposable fashion. After all, why buy something when you could hire it? Alex and Havva often find themselves creating something new from interesting vintage donations from village hall clear-outs or being able to breathe life back into family heirlooms inherited by the Wardrobe.

"When an item comes into a collection like ours, that's not the end of its life. It has the chance to take on a new story," Alex says as she pulls out a pair of immaculate 1940s shoes. "These were brought in by a lady whose mother wore them as part of her going away outfit. They've now been to countless Goodwood Revivals. It's lovely to think that they have experienced other adventures."

As custodians as well as costumiers, it's their shared passion for fashion's history which shines through as Alex and Havva chat about finding the perfect outfit for clients, making and altering costumes for theatre productions, running educational workshops or giving talks to visiting groups. Their wish is to see Hampshire Wardrobe regarded as one of Hampshire's jewels rather than just a hidden gem because what it has to offer is far more than simply choosing something from a dressing up box. It's a place where there's an opportunity to explore the past, to interact with it and relive stories from another time but most importantly, as Havva adds, "It's a place to inspire."

Hampshire Wardrobe is open Monday to Friday by appointment. Find the shop in Chilcomb Lane, Winchester, SO23 8RB; 01962 678199; hampshireculture.org.uk/hampshire-wardrobe

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