The Oldest Garment at the Fashion Museum | The Fashion Museum

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The Oldest Garment at the Fashion Museum

One of the questions that we are often asked here at the Fashion Museum is: “What is the oldest garment at museum?”. We can reveal the answer here.

5 June 2020

Among the many historic fashion treasures in Bath is an Elizabethan man’s shirt, made of soft and supple cream linen, decorated in skilfully wrought blackwork embroidery. The shirt is dated to between 1580 and 1590. This is the oldest complete garment in the collection at the Fashion Museum.

Man’s blackwork embroidered linen shirt, 1580-1590, credit: Fashion Museum Bath

Man’s blackwork embroidered linen shirt, 1580-1590

Credit: Fashion Museum Bath

The shirt gives us a unique glimpse at what an Elizabethan man of fashion, around the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, might have worn beneath his slashed doublet. A doublet was a tight-fitting jacket fastening with closely spaced buttons. Breeches or trousers had not yet been invented: instead trunk hose and tube-like canions were worn on the legs. A short cape worn over one shoulder completed the look.

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by unknown English artist, oil on panel, 1588  © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by unknown English artist, oil on panel, 1588

© National Portrait Gallery, London

We think that the shirt belonged to Sir Christopher Harris of an ancient West Country family, the Harris of Hayne, who lived in Devon and traditionally guarded the passage across the River Tamar into Cornwall.

Harris worked for the Navy alongside fellow west countryman Sir Walter Raleigh. He amassed a large collection of silver dishes, known as the Armada Service, most likely plundered from Spanish treasure ships sailing from the New World. The Armada Service is now at the British Museum.

Sir Christopher’s shirt is cut full, made of rectangular pattern pieces of finely woven linen, gathered into the neckband, the full sleeves into the cuffs. There are square gussets under each arm and at the neck shoulder seam. The shirt is stitched together with overcast edges and run and fell seams. There is a long vent at the bottom of both side seams, with a small square patch strengthening the top of the split. The neckband and cuffs have tied openings.

The sleeves, cuffs, neckband and front and back of the shirt are all decorated in blackwork embroidery in strips of a scrolling design of flowers, insects, birds and trees. A closer look shows that these flowers could be roses and pansies, and the insects either bees or wasps.

There is always a chance that it was Sir Christopher’s nightshirt, rather than his shirt. Shirts and nightshirts were the same basic design: nightshirts were just slightly longer. This shirt does reach well below the knee.

The wardrobe accounts of Henry VIII do list nightclothes, made of linen. And there are intriguing contemporary accounts too of another use in the 16th century for blackwork decorated linen, as ‘tooth cloths’!