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3 women riding bicycles, circa 1900

Unpacking an object from The Amelia Collection: Mrs Spink’s Skirt

Written by Centre for Fashion Curation
Published date 05 March 2020

    Emily Gallagher, MA Fashion Curation

    The Amelia (formerly the Tunbridge Wells Museum) is currently undergoing a large restoration project and has set out to review its collection. Museums often conduct collection reviews as a process of analysing and accessing all objects that have been accumulated by past and present curators. Such projects aim to condense collections into relevant and concise archives that reflect museums’ ethos.

    Six MA Fashion Curation students, including myself have been enlisted to assist on this project and join the museums team in conducting a collection review of their 20th-century costume.

    The Amelia (formerly the Tunbridge Wells Museum) is currently undergoing a large restoration project and has set out to review its collection. Museums often conduct collection reviews as a process of analysing and accessing all objects that have been accumulated by past and present curators. Such projects aim to condense collections into relevant and concise archives that reflect museums’ ethos.

    Six MA Fashion Curation students, including myself have been enlisted to assist on this project and join the museums team in conducting a collection review of their 20th-century costume.

    On our first visit to the archive in January we reviewed 32 garments, photographing them on mannequins and assessing their condition.  When doing so, we came across a garment that sparked interested and had us wondering what might have been its use and function.
    The brown wool garment (photographed above) was clearly cleverly designed for a particular function, as we could see from its construction comprising two adjoining parts of a skirt at the front and shorts at the back.

    After some time pondering over the item, it was two elastic stirrup-like pieces hanging from the hemline that informed our decision of its potential use being a riding skirt. And we were correct - however, further research has shown that the garment is in fact a riding skirt although would have been used for riding a bicycle, rather than a horse which we originally assumed.

    Similarly to the modern day ‘skorts’ that we are accustomed to, early 20th-century cycling wear merged knee-length shorts and a front skirt panel, here with buttons vertically along the centre to open for extra movement. This dual-design gives the appearance of skirt whilst allowing for modesty with the riders legs covered enabling the wearer to move freely whilst riding.

    This skorts predecessors, as much of 19th-century dress was, were absent of such innovative and functional design; instead women hoping to ride horses were restricted to wearing ankle-length skirts whilst sitting side saddle, often causing accidents and was greatly impractical. As the 20th-century approached, Dress Reformists, including the highly regarded Amelia Bloomer who introduced Bloomer shorts, encouraged the use of rational dress - dress that allowed women to move and function freely.

    Left: Cycling suit, 1896 (via The MET New York),  Centre: Cycling suit, 1898 (via The MET New York), Right: Cycling suit, 1895 (via Manchester City Galleries).

    As part of the collection review project, I have been searching for similar garments within other museum collections in order to decipher the objects uniquity, potential use for researchers and future display.
    As the above images show, full riding ensembles commonly consisted of a skort and jacket. We have not yet completed the collections review, so it is possible that there may be a matching jacket.
    I have also concluded that, similarly to the skirt we have been analysing, it seems that brown wool was the preferred fabric for cycling wear.
    We are yet to come to a conclusion on the intended function of the elastic hanging from the hemline - perhaps they were used as stirrups or positioned on the thigh to keep the shorts from rising in the wind?

    Captain Harold H M Spink and Mrs Spink’s wedding, 1919. (Image courtesy of The Amelia)

    On searching for answers, it was fantastic to uncover a breadth of information on the items original owner who donated a myriad of items throughout the 1950s. Mrs Silvia Mary Spink donated over 40 objects including her wedding ensemble with a photograph (above) to be included in the museums collection, then curated by Edythe Bradley.
    When speaking with Ian Beavis, the museums current curator, he suggested that “it’s reasonable to assume that [Bradley and Spink] knew each other and that Mrs Spink was part of the circle of local women who helped Mrs Bradley build up the costume collection in its early days.”

    Both researching and handling this historic garment has prompted considerable reflection, thoughts and questions on the item and its original owner. As mentioned, we can maybe assume that Mrs Spink was an avid donator to the collection in its formative years, and that she may have had close connections with the museum. It’s delightful to imagine Mrs Spink wearing her skirt, most likely riding around the town of Tunbridge Wells at some point. We may wonder, what must have it had been like to wear a skirt like this one at that time, able to freely move whilst staying fashionable at the same time?

    Mrs Spink’s riding skirt, now belonging to The Amelia, represents a period of fashion history that rationalised and revolutionised women's dress. Functionality outweighed form and women were free to partake in sports and other activities such as physical work outside of the home. On realising the profound meaning and representation of such objects within museum collections, we can come to understand the history of a particular time, place and society as well as the provenance and lives of those who made or wore such fashions.

    Women riding bicycles, circa 1900 (via Cyclehistory)