Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain, A contextualised ‘behind-the-scenes’ exhibition review

by Amy de la Haye on 17 February 2023

Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain is the first exhibition dedicated to the rich tapestry of folk customs found in the UK today. It explores the central role played by costume in local and seasonal folk customs, bringing together over 40 costumes created, customised and worn by individual practitioners, most of which have never been exhibited before.

Co-curator and SHOWstudio contributing exhibitions review editor Amy de la Haye reports.

Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain is the first exhibition dedicated to the rich tapestry of folk customs found in the UK today. It explores the central role played by costume in local and seasonal folk customs, bringing together over 40 costumes created, customised and worn by individual practitioners, most of which have never been exhibited before.

Britain’s public museums are brimming with objects looted from other cultures. Yet, as a nation we have generally failed to value and preserve our own rich folk culture heritage. Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain is the first exhibition devoted to this fascinating, marginalised and highly politicised subject. As co-curator, with Simon Costin (director) and Mellany Robinson (projects manager) from the independent Museum of British Folklore (MoBF), this review provides a contextualised back-story narrative which draws upon our combined work. It also provides insights into Simon’s exhibition installation design.

Since 2020 - with the the Covid-19 pandemic, environmental devastation, heightened awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, global politics moving to the nationalistic right and increasing inequities within society - we have witnessed a surge of interest in alternative ways of living, including folk cultures. (At the most popular level, Taylor Swift’s 2020 album was titled Folklore). This groundswell has inevitably impacted fashion expression, which we decided to exclude in our exhibition. In turn, folk communities have demonstrated their adaptability, resilience and relevance today.

The first costume the visitor encounters, in the museum’s main entrance, is a vibrant costume designed, made and installed by Clary Salandy from Mahogany Carnival Arts for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Folk costume is widely misunderstood. So much so, that many people think that Britain does not have its own distinctive folk costumes. In fact, it has a great many! Mostly region-specific, folk customs are celebrated from Scotland’s northerly isles to England’s south coast and have been greatly enriched by the folk customs celebrated by immigrant communities. We define folk costume as the dressed appearance (including body adornment, jewellery, cosmetics etc.), worn by local community members to celebrate a particular date, season, person, occasion or story.

Costumes are generally home-made or customised, with makers re-purposing pre-existing materials, garments, buttons and trinkets, and/or local natural resources, such as flowers, leaves and straw. Costumes communicate group membership and individual identities. Whilst they are holders of deeply personal, familial and community meanings, the ephemerality of folk costumes (flowers and leaves perish), they are often not considered ‘well-made’ (which is to miss the point entirely) and have little financial value, they have, all too often, been discarded and dismissed by the state and broader culture.

Folk festivals – in their various guises - are inherently subversive, heavily aligned towards radical left wing and environmental politics and alternative religions. From the Puritans in the 17th century to the present day, gatherings have been systematically suppressed by the church and state; deemed as a threat to civil order and/or the political status quo. This might partly explain why Britain – unlike many European countries -lacks a state-funded museum dedicated to its past and living folk heritage.

Rather than simply rue this absence, Simon Costin, who has been enchanted by folk festivals since childhood, was compelled to self-fund and establish The Museum of British Folklore (MoBF) in 2009. Simon trained in theatre design. He went on to craft radical jewellery, designed the acclaimed runway shows for the late Alexander McQueen’s early collections and regularly creates fantastical settings for fashion photographer Tim Walker. Other fashion related clients include Hermes, H&M, Lanvin and Maison Margiela. However, his heart lies with folk customs.

As an adult, Simon is a folk participant; has forged relationships with scores of folk communities and become a respected subject specialist. Today, the MoBF collection comprises some 4,000 folk objects, including costumes, both gifted and purchased. The earliest item is a jig doll dating from the late 1880s; few earlier pieces survive.

Portrait of Simon Costin 2022 wearing his Museum in a Hat designed by Stephen Jones. To raise awareness and generate publicity Simon spent a year touring the UK in a micro-museum caravan. The bird cage symbolises the release of the idea; the silver sixpence signifies the need to generate funding and the garden suggests a rural location. Photo: courtesy of the author.

As the MoBF does not yet have a fixed venue, Simon and Mellany Robinson, the museum’s project manager for the last decade, have made the collections accessible via 14 exhibitions hosted by other institutions. After a completely serendipitous meeting with Mellany on a train platform in 2019, I joined the duo, supported by the research Centre for Fashion Curation (CfFC) at London College of Fashion of which I am joint director (with exhibition maker Judith Clark). Later in 2019, we approached Compton Verney, which houses the largest collection of folk art (but no costume) in the UK and has a progressive, equitable, curatorial, education and outreach programme.

The Darkest Ooser. A reproduction of a 19th century figure, the ‘ooser’ was taken around Dorset villages at Christmas to collect money and refreshments. Courtesy: Jamie, Blackthorn Ritualistic Morris.

From the outset we were determined to challenge misconceptions that folk culture in Britain is exclusively white, heteronormative, male-dominated, rural, nostalgic and ‘fixed.’ Led by CfFC we submitted a successful funding bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund which has supported a number of events, workshops and training opportunities, with a special focus on marginalised communities. We have also actively confronted complex and highly controversial issues, most notably the practice of blackface amongst some morris sides, a practice that the Joint Morris Organisations banned in 2020. We have appointed an EDI panel to support and advise on how we interpret and engage with equity and diversity. A special section in the exhibition presents relevant objects, including some of the blackface morris dolls from the Museum of British Folklore, and contextualises them. Whilst recognizing these can cause distress, we hope this approach will foster greater tolerance and understanding.

Cloth dolls dressed in replica morris costumes, metciulously made by Morris side participants. These form part of the Museum of British Folklore’s ongoing project Morris Folk, launched in 2013. A standard cloth doll was sent to morris sides across the country with an invitation to dress it in a miniature replica of their costume and return it to the museum. Today, there are nearly 250 dolls in the collection. Courtesy: Museum of British Folklore.
Sleights Plough Stots Costume. Date unknown. Linen, printed cotton appliqué, ribbons and bells. This imaginative costume, with its naive design of people, animals, leaves and symbolic motifs, has been decorated using old printed cotton dress fabrics.Folklorist Thomas Fairman Ordish (1855-1924) observed in 1890: 'This year, the men had no cut-out figures on their shirts, only ribbons and rosettes … but I have generally seen them with small horses, and ploughs stuck on … the idea of the man who made it is that all the live creatures connected with a farm ought to be presented.' Courtesy English Folk Dance and Song Society.
Sleights Plough Stots Costume research detail photo. Courtesy English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain brings together just a selection of the rich diversity of folk costumes worn in Britain today and in the past. The exhibition includes children’s costumes worn to celebrate Orkney’s Festival of the Horse, Leeds Carnival costumes and some of the multiplicity of costumes worn by morris sides throughout the country. We have displayed 40 costumes representing some 20 folk cultures and wherever possible have featured the voice of the wearer or maker. The mannequins have been rendered ‘neutral’ by masking their faces with brown tape; Simon's reference was the nursery rhyme ‘Jack and Jill’, in which Jack falls down the hill and has his ‘crown’ mended with brown paper and vinegar, an old medicinal remedy. The costumes are further contextualized with snapshots, professional photographs, artworks and a range of objects drawn from Compton Verney’s collections; the archive of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Whiteland College’s May Day archive, folk participants materials and private lenders. We have also borrowed a number of items from subject specialist and project consultant Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe's English Folk Costume Archive.

The Festival of the Horse. From around 1815, Orcadian (residents of the Orkney Islands) boys have costumed as decorated Clydesdale horses. This tradition still continues but with girls dressing in costume and boys competing in the ploughing match in which they have to draw straight lines in Sands O'Wright beach. Courtesy: Moira Budge, Fran Gray, Ann Peace, Wilma Currie, Jacqueline Scott, Willie Budge, Amy-Jane Budge.

Simon determined that the exhibition design should communicate the anti-establishment nature of folk culture. ‘The dripping paint title typography has a punk and graffiti aesthetic; splattered across a photograph by the revered photographer Sir Benjamin Stone’s portrait of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers seemed suitably anarchic. Likewise, the design of the backdrop panels for each folk community was inspired by the visual language of political protest banners.‘ 'The bunting evokes the village green and makes people smile'. He adds, ’As I needed to repurpose the display stands for the tour to London College of fashion’s new Stratford site in Spring 2024, I chose modular components and scaffolding structures which were both economical and effective.’

The Victorian gallery. 'There are two constructed Maypoles in the exhibition. One resembles a tree trunk which references the devoutly Christian folk critic Philip Stubbe’s condemnation of the ‘stinking idol’, the other a beribboned Victorian replica. The May Queen costume to the left of the Maypole was designed by the children's illustrator Kate Greenaway in 1887.

Upon entering the gallery, the first object the visitor sees is a small portrait of Oliver Cromwell (painted by Samuel Cooper, 1657), from Compton Verney’s collection. Mellany chose this to represent the suppression of folk culture from the outset. The gallery walls are painted in four shades of green. Starting with dark forest green for Puritan narratives, it moves to a rich Tudor green through to a William Morris arts and crafts green for the Victorian re-presentation and sanitisation of folk cultures, including May Day, and into a bright Spring green to suggest the greater freedoms of the present day.

'In 1976 Poynton Jemmers morris side held a North West morris workshop, primarily for women, at Sidmouth. This was revolutionary at the time, and it inspired Olive Cutting and Kate Rose to start a North West side. It was called Flowers of May because their first dance out (performance) was in May 1977.   The kit chosen was very reflective of the times - everyone wore Laura Ashley fabric dresses in different colours, and a white apron. They wore black character shoes.  The side split in August 1977 and Whitethorn morris was born. One of the differences was that those staying in Flowers of May wanted to move to wearing clogs, while those in Whitethorn still wanted shoes. Whitethorn changed to clogs a few years later though. I joined Flowers of May in September 1977, straight after the split.   We were a very strong side for a number of years, performing at festivals and days of dance, as well as the usual diet of fetes and pub evenings. We had over thirty members at times and at least a dozen musicians. Time moves on though, and by 2000 it was clear that we were no longer viable. Some of the members joined Whitethorn, which is still performing in 2022.' - Susan Bell Courtesy English Folk Costume Archive. Donated by Susan Bell.
In order to communicate some of the cacophony of noise, crowds, movement and thrill of a folk festival, Simon contacted his friend the folklorist Doc Rowe, who has spent the last fifty years documenting seasonal customs and his film footage was then edited by Ruth Hogben. In 2010 Ruth was commissioned by SHOWstudio to make a film called Britannica.
Minehead Hobby Horse. The parading of a hobby horse in the Somerset coastal town of Minehead is first recorded as a 19th century tradition, although is believed to have taken place much earlier than this. It is an ongoing event taking place each May Day. Courtesy: Museum of British Folklore. Donated by John and Jacqueline Land

Britain’s folk culture is a living heritage. We need to capture its present as well as its past. The major support shown by the National Lottery Heritage Fund has demonstrated significant investment, culturally and capitally. Existing cultures are adapting in order to remain relevant and new customs and festivals are emerging. As visitors exit the show they are shown a collection of hats, rescued from a car boot sale by photographer James Stopforth. Alas, this is a rare survival story. The longer-term ambition of our project is to find funding for a fixed venue for the Museum of British Folklore to permit it to stage exhibitions, events and provide public access to the archive.

Bridport Hat Festival. Courtesy: Museum of British Folklore.

Making Mischief is on 11 Feb – 11 June at Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire. Installation images courtesy of Simon Costin.

Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain will tour to London College of Fashion’s new Stratford site in Spring 2024 where it will have a greater London focus.



Interview: Simon Costin on the Museum of British Folklore

20 May 2009
An exclusive interview with set designer and art director Simon Costin and a look at some of the treasure-trove of exhibits inside his Museum of British Folklore.

Interview: Ruth Hogben

18 February 2011
Film director Ruth Hogben interviewed by Alexander Fury on 18 February 2011 as a part of SHOWstudio’s ‘In Fashion’ series.

Best in Show: Amy de la Haye

22 July 2018
Historian and curator Amy de la Haye explores androgyny, analysing a corset from Ann Demeulemeester's A/W 18 collection.
Back to top