Pack Up Your Troubles: Gretna
On Saturday I escaped the chaos of the last weekend of Edinburgh Fringe for an entirely different kind of festival, the Pack Up Your Troubles First World War festival in Gretna. I made this trip in order to see a presentation from The History Wardrobe, and unfortunately did not manage to see anything else at the festival (I wish I could have attended the Make Do & Mend session at the Devil’s Porridge Museum, but I have lined up a visit to that museum for another time! ). I did however learn a little about the history of the area beyond my minimal knowledge (via Jane Austen) of Gretna Green as a destination for quick marriages.
Gretna was known during the First World War for HM Factory which spread over 9 miles and employed 30,000 workers – who were largely female. By 1917 the factory produced 1,100 tons of cordite a week, more than every other munition plant in Britain put together.(1) The lethal combination of guncotton and nitro-glycerine combined to produce cordite became known as the ‘devil’s porridge’ – hence the evocative name of the museum now on the site of the factory in Eastriggs, near Gretna. The museum tells the story of the factory, the munitions girls who worked there, and of the Quintinshill rail disaster. Coincidentally one of the only events I attended at the Edinburgh Festival was a theatre production commemorating the events of the Quintinshill rail disaster of May 1915, the worst rail disaster in British history in which over 200 were killed and over 200 injured. The vast majority of casualties were soldiers from the 1/7th Battalion of Royal Scots, on their way from Leith, Edinburgh to Gallipoli. Persevere: Gretna 100 was a community theatre event performed in the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Leith, the very hall in which the soldiers trained and the place from which they left their loved ones, many for the last time. It was an interactive performance in which we, the audience members, could move around the hall witnessing different scenes and the effects of the disaster as it unfolded on different families. The hall was the space families came to for news of their loved ones, and the most emotional moment of the performance came as the cast banged on the huge doors begging for updates – exactly as they would have done 100 years ago. The Gretna 100 performance and the story of the 1/7th Royal Scots were very much on my mind as I travelled by train down to Gretna.
Bunting and flags let me know I had found the correct building in Gretna for Lucy Adlington’s talk on Great War fashion. Lucy is the author of the only book (to date) on British fashion in the Great War period: Great War Fashion. As well as writing she offers costume-in-context presentations covering many different time periods, drawing from her amazing collection (*extreme jealousy*) of historic fashion. In her talk Lucy gave a great overview of Great War fashion using a combination of first hand accounts, supporting media such as photos, diaries and newspapers, and anecdotes of wartime life. She managed to make the subject accessible to the diverse audience of an open community event, but detailed, factual and fascinating – I definitely learned some new things and I spend my life studying this subject! Lucy had laid out a tempting array of Great War era garments, from a glamorous full-skirted silk dress to a very un-glamorous Harrods nursing uniform. I was very excited to see a black camisole/corset cover which is almost certainly mourning dress, and the khaki coloured gaiters worn by munitions workers to protect the bottoms of their trousers.
Controversially for some, Lucy and her colleagues perform their talks dressed in historic costume, sometimes changing on stage (all behind screens!) and showing the audience the many layers of underwear worn beneath historic garments. With a museum-brain on, this is a conservation nightmare: BUT. Fashion was made to be worn, and no matter how fancy the mannequin, clothes never look the same on wood or fiber glass as they do on the human body. In a museum garments don’t rustle, swish and move around, you can’t get underneath to see how they fasten or what is holding them up, and you can’t feel their weight or texture. I certainly don’t think museums should start using their collections in this way – but I am so thrilled that the History Wardrobe offer this alternative experience, and a chance to engage with costume history in a more tactile, visceral manner. It was really refreshing to see such a mixed audience, from young children to old men, paying real attention – for an hour and a half – to the subject of women’s dress history, and taking a lot of women’s social history on board at the same time!
Lucy focused very much on the personal experiences behind each object – asking her audience to really imagine what women went through during the war and what the clothes meant to them. It was fascinating for me to see the layers of underwear and original boots as those are areas I don’t yet know a huge amount about, and exciting to see an original industrial worker’s tunic which Lucy discussed in the context of the Gretna HM Factory. Lucy had very kindly brought an extra box of goodies for me to look through, and we had a great time discussing the ins-and-outs of Great War fashion while I photographed as much as I could! I fell totally in love with this dress (below) – and was privileged to look over some bodices that had been donated to the History Wardrobe collection the evening before.
As part of my research I am looking at methods of interpreting historic fashion, and it will be of great interest to compare the History Wardrobe approach with other methods including traditional museum approaches, living history and the use of replica garments. It was also hugely beneficial (and exciting) to look through some of Lucy’s collection, some of the objects will certainly feature in my thesis.
For more information on the Quintinshill disaster Neil Oliver made a really good BBC documentary which is still available on iplayer: link here. Look out for Lucy and her team as they tour the country with their wonderful wardrobe!
(1) “Home page,” http://www.devilsporridge.org.uk (accessed September 1, 2015).