How Colchester Royal Grammar School ditched its green uniform for pricier purple
- Credit: Archant
Lots of intriguing stories in Hollytrees Museum’s exhibition inspired by colours
At first glance, hanging there in the subdued lighting, it looks like a uniform from Hogwarts – the fictional school for wizards in the Harry Potter films. It’s a blazer, dating from 1922 and worn at Colchester Royal Grammar School. And it’s a dark purple. Not a hue I’d choose. For one thing, it wouldn’t match my eyes.
But the headmaster of the time liked it – and, it seems, for reasons of one-upmanship, rather than sartorial style. He wanted his pupils and school to stand out, so he ditched the old colours – green, I’m told – and sought something unique.
His motivation doesn’t impress museum curator Emma Reeve.
“I find it just ridiculous that the way they chose their colour was the schoolmaster went into the tailor’s and said ‘What’s the most expensive dye?’ And they changed to purple because it was the most expensive.”
You may also want to watch:
So this switch, which happened in about 1908, was about a visible symbol of status? “Absolutely. Which jostles a lot with my personal feelings…”
(I should point out that Emma’s not having a major rant here! She’s very measured in tone.)
- 1 Pictures show flooding along Suffolk coast
- 2 11 Suffolk hotels named among best in the country
- 3 Road closed as one person trapped in car on its roof
- 4 No need to wait for booster invitation - clarification after Covid jab confusion
- 5 New shop for farm that focuses on mental health
- 6 Major A14 roundabout may not reopen until next week as water main repaired
- 7 From obscurity to a nailed-on starter - Donacien's remarkable Town journey
- 8 Large cannabis farm discovered in property near Suffolk-Essex border
- 9 Nsiala on his injury return, a rollercoaster Town career and 'hugging it out' with boss Cook
- 10 'It was always going to be' - Cook confirms Morsy as Town's club captain
And how about this for coincidence? “Weirdly, the hanger it’s on is actually one from that tailor” – A. Owen Ward – “which was donated to us just a couple of weeks before the exhibition. I’d seen the information about the blazer, and realised ‘Gosh, it’s the same place...’”
The exhibition in which the blazer finds itself a part is called Collections in Colour – the result of a simple but effective idea by Emma to put on display about 70 artefacts chosen for their colour (as well as their intriguing stories and significance).
“We’ve gone through the colours of the rainbow, effectively,” she smiles. It’s true. There’s red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple, with white and black there for good measure.
“Everything has specific interest for this area. For example, we’ve got this West Essex Militia coatee from about 1830. This is something that really stood out: the iconic red colour of the British army.”
It belonged to John Phillips Judd, a captain. He must have been on the slim side, for it’s displayed on a child-size mannequin.
“I’m not sure how old he was, but he was very small. A very petite man, perhaps.”
The one-room exhibition, including the writing of the information boards, was put together by Emma and colleague Sophie Stevens, who specialises in the natural history side.
Was it easy to choose the objects?
“I literally went into the collections management database and searched by colour. Then I looked for things that appeared interesting or gave me ideas. Personal preference, really, and things I could tell an interesting story about,” says Emma, collections and learning curator with Colchester and Ipswich Museums.
They also aimed to include artefacts that spanned the range of the collection: from natural history to social history and decorative art to archaeology, for instance.
She must have a favourite item. Ooh, go on…
“Difficult, that is. I’ve got a few… I’ve talked about that bowl, and that’s because I love it and want to take it home with me!”
It’s a bold, red, glazed pottery piece, created in a Persian style by British designer William De Morgan in the 1870 to 1905 period.
There’s a little pendant carved from jet and in the shape of a bear. It’s Roman, dates from AD 125 to 400, and was found in a child’s grave. The Romans believed jet to have magical qualities. Pendants are thought to have been buried with children to protect them from harm in the afterlife.
“I had quite a lot of fun researching things, especially this safety razor.” It’s a Gillette, sold from about 1920 to 1930 and aimed at women. American businessman King Camp Gillette invented the safety razor, with disposable blades, only in 1901. This ornate one is gilded brass, with white enamelled decoration.
“When did women start taking off their body hair? I found it: around 1920. There was an advertising campaign where somebody basically made adverts saying ‘Your body hair’s not very nice. You should really get rid of it, shouldn’t you?’ It was armpits first, and then legs about 10 years later or something. It’s kind of weird to think it’s that recent.”
Before the 1910s, women did not generally worry about body hair, but the new fashions of the 1920s prompted a marketing campaign to promote the removal of women’s armpit hair.
I mention an article I read on the BBC website, about the baffling modern-day trend of removing body hair from places rather more personal than armpits and legs.
“It’s almost as if we’re sanitising ourselves completely. If it’s anything natural, we don’t want to know. I blame the media!”
I won’t argue.
There’s also a blue paper dress – something to do with Nestle Nescafe in 1960. It’s an example of the rise of cheap and disposable fashion, sometimes used to advertise other products.
And so to the yellow section. “I’ve always got a soft spot for a flint axe! The experience of holding a hand-axe… it’s probably one of the most powerful feelings in my job. They’re among the very first tools humans ever used, and this is a particularly early example: perhaps 900,000 BC. To know that somebody’s taken quite a lot of time to create that…”
Here’s something that might pop up in a pub quiz: It’s thought the yellow male Brimstone inspired the word “butterfly” – “butter-coloured fly”.
“I think that’s what part of this exhibition is about: we want people to go away with facts they’ll remember, because they are really interesting.”
Something new to Emma was the theory that robins have become linked to our notion of Christmas because Victorian postmen (busy chaps in that era of mass letter- and card-sending) wore red jackets and were nicknamed “robins”.
Close by, on the wall, is a 2001 print by Alan Smith called In and Out. It was inspired by reflections on the River Colne and the bright colours of shipping containers. “I thought that was quite a good way of tying everything together. And I’ve wanted to get that out ever since I got here! I look at it and think ‘That’s nice…’. So, I suppose there is a lot of what I like!”
Emma, who hails from Nottingham, has been working in Colchester for about 18 months. Before that she was in Norwich for seven or eight years.
She sees her job as an accumulator of stories, really – then presenting them in a way so more people get to enjoy them.
Standing by one of the display cabinets, to have her picture taken, she looks at the glass and smiles. “Do you know how you tell how popular an exhibition is? By the number of noseprints there are!”
The magic of Hollytrees
Collections in Colour is in a room at Hollytrees Museum
Hollytrees is in Colchester’s Castle Park (near the castle, in fact)
It runs until April 22
Admission is free
Open 10am to 5pm (not Sundays)
Hollytrees, a Georgian building, tells us about domestic life and childhood in Colchester over 300 years
Find out, for instance, about Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which was written in Colchester
The exhibition also includes:
Mini skirt from 1967 to 1970
Glass barrel bead (AD 43 to 410): The arrival of the Romans brought new technologies in glass-making
Jet pendant (1890 to 1900): Jet jewellery (jet was formed from the decomposed fossilised wood of the Monkey Puzzle tree) was traditionally worn during mourning. It became particularly fashionable when Queen Victoria wore jet after the death of Prince Albert
Victorian silhouettes (1830 to 1840): Depict Colchester wine merchant Edward Sallows and his wife
Carrion crow, Corvus corone: Intelligent birds, with large brains for their size. Black plumage traditionally associated them with death and bad luck
Roman glass urn (AD 150): Commonly used by Romans to contain cremated human remains
Bronze Age axe heads (750 to 700 BC): Bronze is a mixture of copper and tin. The green colour is the result of corrosion
Hedingham Ware jar (late 1800s): Edward Bingham was a craft potter who made ceramics in the style of medieval and Tudor pottery. This jar depicts Henry VIII and first wife Catharine of Aragon
Oakblue Arhopala sp butterfly: Oakblue caterpillars release a sugary substance that attracts ants. Scientists believe it makes the ants care for the caterpillar, protecting it instead of their own colony
Late Roman porphyry marble fragment (AD 300 to 410): From the Temple of Claudius, the site now occupied by Colchester Castle. The Romans associated purple with nobility and power. Porphyry marble was reserved for the emperor and was imported from Egypt
Amber: A form of fossilised tree resin. Can be as much as 350,000 years old. Most amber washed up on the shores of East Anglia originates from pine forests submerged by the North Sea at the end of the last Ice Age
Canary, Serinus canaria domestica: Canaries were first bred in captivity in the 1600s. In the early 1900s, experiments with breeding began to produce birds of different colours, including this orange one
Roman Samian ware bowl (AD 43 to 410): Its colour comes from iron oxides, applied to the surface before firing. This example is stamped with the name of potter Advicisus and was made in central Gaul (France)
Stiletto shoes, Palter DeLiso, New York (1960): Bought from Dolcis shoe shop in Colchester. The stiletto heel was invented in the 1940s and named after the stiletto dagger
Roman glass jug handle with medallion (AD 43 to 100): Gets vivid blue colour from the chemical cobalt. The decorative medallion probably represents Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and fertility
Blue tit, Cyanistes caeruleus: The genus name Cyanistes comes from the classical Greek word kuanos, meaning dark-blue. The species name Caeruleus means ‘of the sky’
Victorian silk bag (1870): Lined with yellow silk and decorated with ribbon work embroidery. Artificial dyes were invented during the Victorian period and quickly replaced natural dyes
Iron Age enamelled harness fitting (50 BC to AD 100)
Roman bone hair pin (AD 43 to 410): Carved from animal bone and has an unusually decorative head
Spats (1925): A short cloth gaiter covering the instep and ankle. Became fashionable with men in the 1800s to 1900s. These white cotton ones were worn to a London wedding in 1925
Chalk fossils: Of molluscs that lived in a tropical sea covering much of England 64 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. Chalk is white because it is a pure form of the mineral calcium carbonate derived from the crushed remains of plankton
Source: Colchester and Ipswich Museums