RARE and beautiful dresses worn by Carlisle women are wowing visitors to the new, permanent costume gallery at Tullie House Museum.

The garments have been drawing visitors to a new costume gallery at the Museum since it opened its doors in July.

The gallery showcases 300 years of clothing worn by local women including many items never previously displayed, and some of national importance.

Unusually for costume galleries, most of the dresses are accompanied by information about their owners.

“It’s wonderful to see people come in and enjoy and engage with the costumes,” said Gabrielle Heffernan, who is curatorial manager at Tullie House, on Castle Street in Carlisle.

“Whenever someone goes in, they stand there and say wow! Many of these dresses have never been seen by the public before.”

Nationally important items include a court mantua from the mid eighteenth century.

“It’s a beautiful blue dress with silvery threads,” says Gabrielle. “It is about six feet wide and quite bizarre looking – they were worn by rich women at the incredible events they went to.”

Other important dresses include several owned by Dorothy Howard, daughter of George Howard, the 9th Earl of Carlisle, of Naworth Castle.

Costumes are not just from the rich and famous. They include clothes worn by ordinary women, such as a lady who lived in Burgh by Sands in the mid-1800s, who seems to have had her day dress altered so she could breast-feed her baby.

There is a wedding dress worn by parlour maid Margaret Pearson for her wedding in 1925 to a man who was a train driver on the Royal Scot. Among the more contemporary outfits is a ‘Cracker Packers’ uniform from McVities.

The most up-to-date exhibit is the scrubs worn by nurse Evelyn Charlotte Nakachwa as she worked through the Covid pandemic at the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle.

One beautiful wedding dress has a story to tell, not just of Carlisle but also of world events.

It belonged to Julie Martin, who will be remembered by many as a leading teacher of secretarial skills at Carlisle Technical College.

Julie’s daughter Judith Clarke lives in Cumwhitton and is herself a former curator of costumes at Tullie House.

She says: “It is a beautiful dress. I would have loved to have worn it to my own wedding, but I was too tall. It is woven with shiny and matt areas so that it shimmers in the light.

“It has padded shoulders which was fashionable then and has covered buttons down the back and on the wrist. It also had a train. It is very elegant. She was a very good looking, quite beautiful young woman. She obviously loved the dress.”

“She got the material for the dress through a former employee of the Ferguson’s works at Holme Head,” says Judith.

“She somehow managed to get fabric that was intended for export. Rationing was still very strict at that time, and she only managed to get it through the help of other people with clothing coupons. Perhaps they gave her extra coupons so she could afford it. She doesn’t say how much it cost.”

The bridesmaids’ dresses had their own wartime connection.

Chief bridesmaid was to be a friend called Mary Walker who was in Berlin working for the British Army of Occupation of the Rhine, following the end of the war.

Judith says: “She was arranging for the bridesmaid dresses to be made there and she would bring them over.

“There was a thriving black market in Germany at the time, and she managed to get the material. But just before she could come back for the wedding there was the Berlin Blockade.”

The blockade was a notorious international crisis sparked by the Soviet Union blocking access to parts of Berlin which were under Western control, during the international occupation of Germany after World War Two.

“It meant that Mary was unable to come back, and so she sent the dresses through the diplomatic post bag,” says Judith. “They arrived just in time on the morning of the wedding.”

“In itself it is a lovely, lovely dress. But then it also has this history, and associations with my mother and with life in Carlisle, and links to the war and Germany. It is quite a story.”