More than just a little black dress

What's an Antipodean doing in East Anglia? In Danielle Sprecher's case, helping us enjoy what people were wearing hundreds of years ago - and even in the 1970s.

Steven Russell

What's an Antipodean doing in East Anglia? In Danielle Sprecher's case, helping us enjoy what people were wearing hundreds of years ago - and even in the 1970s. Steven Russell met her

IMAGINE opening the wardrobe doors and gazing upon 10,000 clothes, shoes and bags . . . “Really fun for me!” laughs Danielle Sprecher, whose job offers that delight - more or less.

As a museum costume curator she looks after thousands of precious items - most of them put away not in a wardrobe, of course, but storerooms. They range from buckles and buttons to beautifully-embroidered Tudor caps and 18th Century silk gowns.

It's a dream role for a woman who's been fascinated by fashion, and particularly old clothes, since childhood, when she'd snip out paper clothes for cardboard dolls.

“I love it! Every time I go in the stores I'm like 'Oooh! Something new I hadn't seen before.'”

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Danielle was searching for accessories, for instance, “and pulled out this little bag. I thought 'Oh yeah, it looks vaguely interesting, and then did a bit more research on it, and it's probably early 1600s. It's got metal thread and silk; it's just a beautiful object and it's amazing it's survived so long in such good condition. It's almost like a daily event to find something”.

Even the more modern items she comes across, such as shoes from the late 1960s, are “just fantastic. They could have been made for this season, because that style of shoe has come back into fashion. Things like that I find really exciting”.

She's been costume curator for the combined Colchester and Ipswich museum service since September: the first time, apparently, either town has had such a specialist.

It's early days, and Aucklander Danielle is still getting her head around what there is in the way of costumes and the East Anglian geography. The service covers museums such as Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich and Hollytrees in Colchester, so the reach is wide, and her remit also involves offering occasional advice to other museums, such as Saffron Walden.

At the moment the curator is carrying out an audit of the clothing held, and repacking. That's because only a fraction of those 10,000 items are on show at any one time; the rest need to be put away safely in the stores - kept at a constant temperature and humidity - to patiently await their moment in the spotlight.

It needs to be done properly. Improperly-packed textiles are at risk from pests such as moths and carpet beetle larvae. Should any little devils appear, clothing is usually put in a freezer for at least a week, at a very low temperature. That normally does the trick.

Out in the open, light is the big enemy. It fades the delicate fabrics and so clothing tends to be displayed for six months at a time, maximum.

The collections in Ipswich and Colchester are quite similar, with most of the items having been donated to museums over the centuries. Examples of the kind of clothes folk wore over the years, they reflect social history, rather than concentrating on high fashion.

Some clothing has what curators call “a good provenance” - they know where it came from and who wore. Other pieces are more enigmatic.

“Now, whenever we get any donations, we really try to find out as much as we can about the objects, because it's having the stories of the items that really bring them to life,” says Danielle.

Ipswich has some impressive 18th Century costume - dresses and silk waistcoats - and there are some wonderful shoes from that period. The town boasts a couple of beautifully-embroidered Tudor caps. The bulk of the collection is 19th Century, mostly women's clothing. There are 20th Century items - up to about the time of the Second World War.

While both towns have examples of military clothing, all in all there aren't many garments for men. Why is that?

“I think it's to do with what people think is important to collect. They often think about things that are decorative, and women have traditionally been more interested in costume, so they have tended to keep things,” thinks Danielle. “Men have tended to wear their clothes until they're worn out, and then get some new ones!”

Colchester's collection includes a couple of things from the 17th Century: a little bag and a child's layette - a set of clothing and accessories for a newborn baby. “That's from about 1660 and is a really lovely piece.”

There are beautiful silk gowns and some men's court costumes - heavily embroidered suits - from the 18th Century, with the bulk of the collection 19th Century.

It's mainly women's wear, with some occupational costume such as agricultural smocks and a linen drayman's outfit, but the 20th Century range is pretty good, too, says Danielle - moving from the First World War years through the 1920s, past the Second World War era of utility garments, and into the '50s, '60s and '70s.

The Colchester collection apparently benefited from the drive of a volunteer called Mrs Mansfield. “She had other volunteers working with her and they actively collected garments through the '70s into the '80s. I think she was there for about 20 years, so we've got some nice items.”

Do museums do that now? Do they pack away noteworthy 21st Century clothes - a hoodie or two, say - that they can whip out in 30 years' time and trigger a few memories for visitors?

“That's definitely an issue I would like to try to deal with, because we haven't had much contemporary costume collection from the 1980s. People, when they think of donating, think it really has to be 'old' for it to be worthwhile for the museum.

“At one of the events I did recently, a woman said 'Oh, I've got some stuff I wore in the '70s' - things she bought in Colchester: jump-suits and stuff - 'would you be interested?' and I said 'Yes, please!' That kind of contemporary fashion is definitely important in keeping the collection alive.

“As time goes by, those things are harder to find. People basically wear things out: we wear them, wash them, they start falling to pieces. That's the challenge.”

As is letting more folk see the treasures held in safekeeping.

“People really do have a real love for and interest in them, but don't necessarily know the collections are there. So one of my priorities is opening the collections to the public, and that's what I'm trying to do with the Out of the Box events.”

That's where clothes are brought out of storage so visitors can enjoy a closer look at the fabric and detailing, and talk to the specialists. Colchester and Ipswich have each staged one event, with more planned for the summer.

Putting more costumes on display is another aim - a medium-term one, since it calls for a fair bit of planning and preparation.

Danielle, 35, grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, and was interested in fashion and fashion history from a young age. She remembers her dad bringing home a Vogue magazine for her when she was five or six. She drew pictures of women's clothes and dressed up in finds from charity shops. “I just loved clothes of any sort.”

Mum was actually from England, hailing from the Southend area, and when Danielle was about nine the family spent a year or so in the UK, visiting relatives.

The youngster relished the chance to visit numerous National Trust properties: not to rush about in the grounds, lick an ice-cream and buy a trinket in the gift-shop but to enjoy the sense of antiquity - particularly the historic costumes. Auckland, where the European influence didn't take hold until the 19th Century, had nothing comparable.

As a teenager she started making clothes, and collected vintage garments.

Danielle did a regular history degree and then a master's degree in New Zealand, the latter examining fashion in the 1920s and how it related to increasing consumerism and gender roles, but then wasn't quite sure in which direction to turn. New Zealand, with a population well shy of 4.5million people - more than a quarter of them living in Greater Auckland - didn't have a surfeit of museums big enough to support specialist costume curators.

After working in a library for a while she decided to do what a lot of friends were doing: have her OE - overseas experience, as it's known down-under - and move to London on spec.

She touched down in midwinter 2000, unsure what to expect or what it might lead to.

“I kind of prepared myself to not like it, because a lot of people I knew that had come back to New Zealand said of the UK, and especially London, 'Oh, it's so big and dirty and difficult, and it costs lots of money.' But I arrived in London and just thought 'I love this place!'”

The bustle and cultural diversity lent a sense of energy, while places such as The National Gallery and the Tate proved treasure-houses on the doorstep.

There was no job lined up, however. Danielle temped in libraries and art colleges, but knew she didn't want to do that for the rest of her days. “I thought 'What is it I really love?', and kept coming back to fashion and fashion history.”

Danielle won places at both The Courtauld Institute of Art and The Royal College of Art, and plumped for a broad MA degree in history of design at the RCA. Part-time work, including some at the Victoria and Albert Museum, kept the wolf from the door.

After graduating in 2006 she also got work at the V&A, including a short-term contract to help with the Surreal Things exhibition. Getting a permanent job in a museum was and is a competitive business, but she landed her post with Colchester and Ipswich.

It takes time to adjust to the different pace of life and the size of the towns after nearly eight years in the capital, but Danielle has found East Anglians friendly.

She misses her family and friends on the other side of the world, of course, and gets back to New Zealand every couple of years, on average. “Where I'm from, it's got the greatest concentration of Polynesian people, and I really miss that, too.”

In her free time she enjoys sewing and making clothes - often buying older clothes, cutting them up and combining them to make something new.

Danielle is, she admits with a laugh, very much into contemporary fashion as well.

Does she spend all her money on clothes? “A little . . . I've got quite a lot of clothes! In a way it's quite good that I don't live in London any more, so I don't get tempted!”

And here's the $64,000 question: how many pairs of shoes?

“I don't know . . . probably about 50.”

WHAT is it that Danielle Sprecher enjoys about clothes, particularly older garments.

“It's a mixture of things. There's a visual appeal: the materials things are made of, the colours, the different techniques - printing or weaving or embroidery; that kind of thing - and also the way that changing styles of clothing reflect social changes. For example, the way women started wearing trousers. It wasn't socially acceptable, really, until after the Second World War, and even then there were still some issues about that.

“And then there's the intimacy of clothing - the fact it's worn on people's bodies and has a real connection to them - as well as the stories, and the reasons why people choose to wear different things. All of these things I find really fascinating.”

Her favourite era often changes.

“It used to be the 1920s. That's what I loved when I was a teenager: for the elegance, and it was such a radical change in shape and aesthetic to what had come before. I think it's the '50s that I really like at the moment.”

FOUR Out of the Box sessions are being held this summer, where visitors can get closer to some of the historic costumes and learn more about them.

They're at:

Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, July 24, 2pm-4pm - beadwork;

Hollytrees Museum, Colchester, July 31, 2pm-4pm - beadwork;

Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, August 7, 2pm-4pm - embroidery;

Hollytrees Museum, Colchester, August 14, 2pm-4pm - embroidery.

More information: www.colchestermuseums.org.uk