Brighton & Hove Museums’ comprehensive costume collection is of considerable national significance. It embraces men’s, women’s and children’s dress and accessories from the 16th century to the present day. Its geographical extent ranges from the British Isles and Western Europe to North America, and its social context cuts across class, status and function.

Rocker's jacket
Rocker’s jacket

The collection spans European national costumes, bridalwear, ‘wardrobe’ collections, bathing costumes, renegade street fashion and 20th century designer couture.

The first donation to the collection in 1897 was a blue silk umbrella. Since then, as interest in costume history and the evolution of fashion design has grown, the collection has continued to expand at a remarkable pace. Today it contains some 10,000 items.

Women’s wear dominates the collection: silk crinoline dresses from the 1860s; Edwardian evening gowns; beaded flapper dresses from the 1920s right through to 1980s Armani ‘power’ dressing. Collections from many of the major 20th century designers are represented by the likes of Dior, Hartnell, Givenchy and Mary Quant, plus Ossie Clark, Issey Miyake, Shirin Guild and Catherine Walker. Designer wear is complemented by ready-to-wear high street fashion, while pieces from local designers, dressmakers and niche boutiques represent the geographic, social and cultural evolution of Brighton & Hove’s own community.

The collection contains a number of key items of international fashion and style significance. The 1933 collection of sets, costumes and props from the short-lived but highly influential company Les Ballets is rare and exceptional. The Messel ‘wardrobe’ collection offers a unique insight into the evolution of fashion and style across six generations of women from one family. Other highlights include the collection’s earliest objects – a pair of kid leather gloves circa 1595–1605 and a young boy’s silk brocade suit of 1741–45. Two outfits from the coronation procession of George IV in 1821 recall one of the great eras of ostentation and decadent style. Intricately hand-worked silk bridal lingerie by Hermine for Lady Holman’s second marriage in 1940 make up part of a significant collection of 20th century lingerie, corsets, girdles and cage crinolines.