A dress for spring

By beatrice behlen on 16 Apr 2015

I have been putting off publishing this entry as it contains too many known unknowns for my liking. But I have already spent too many hours on Ancestry and I am hoping that you will be able to solve some of the mysteries surrounding the object below.

Detail of fancy dress outfit

The bodice can currently be seen in Show Space a new (small) exhibition area we opened just before Easter. Show Space consists of three mannequin-height cases which can be (relatively) easily configured to hold different types and sizes of objects. We want to react more quickly to what’s happening in London, to bring out objects that have a good story but don’t fit into forthcoming exhibitions and generally to experiment a little. There is also a screen for film and other digital ‘stuff’ and a player for gems from our Oral History Collection (or sounds, or music).

I got the job of putting together the first display and found it a bit difficult to commit to a theme, not that a theme is necessarily required. We want to treat Show Space a bit like a newspaper or magazine where you might encounter different stories on the same page. My colleague Timothy Long pulled out one of our many lovely fancy dress outfits and suggested the topic of ‘Spring’ which then turned into a broader look at the various attempts of Londoners to introduce nature into the capital, their homes, their lives.

'Spring' fancy dress, c. 1895

The ‘ensemble’ (we like to use that word) was donated in the 1950s when curators often did not ask a lot of questions of donors (you can never ask to many!), or maybe they did not record the answers. On Mimsy – the cutesy name of the beast that is our collection database – it just said the outfit had been worn ‘in the Portman Rooms, about 1893′. My money is on 1895 as the bodice has the large, puffy sleeves fashionable in the mid-1890s. The skirt is a bit on the short side for that date, but fancy dress allowed women to show a bit of leg (or boot). I suspect the outfit was put together rather hastily by furnishing an already existing bodice with a new collar of the same fabric as the not particularly well-put-together skirt. The sprays of artificial crocus decorating the dress could do with sprucing-up, but that’s another new thing about Show Space: we might allow objects to come out even if they are not in the most pristine condition.

Page from 1890s magazine

When I finally found the time to go into our archive and look at the object file, I found a magazine page stuck to a bit of cardboard which had obviously once been displayed in a frame. According to the caption the ten outfits illustrated on the page had all been worn at a ‘Fancy Dress ball at the Portman Rooms’. Our very own Spring is included demonstrating that the skirt might not have been worn as short as we suspected, and that the ensemble originally came with a matching hat. The page is too small to be from the Illustrated London News so if you have any idea about the magazine it might have come from, please let me know. Below are two details which might help identify the illustrator. That’s the first two known unknowns out of the way …

Initials on magazine page

The Portman Rooms were located inside (if that’s the right word) a large block of houses between Gloucester Place and Baker Street, with Dorset Street to the north and King (now Blandford) Street to the south. As you will see from the 1892 Insurance Plan published by Charles E. Goad Ltd (available on the British Library website), a major part of the complex was occuppied by the Druce & Co Furniture Warehouse, previously the Baker Street Bazaar.

Goads Map entire block

From 1835 to 1884 Madame Tussaud’s establishment had been based in what became the Portman Rooms, which served as a kind of multi-functional venue for musical entertainments, meetings, Miss Chreiman’s Hygienic Physical Training classes and lectures. It was here that on 24 March 1908 Emmeline Pankhurst delivered her seminal speech on ‘The Importance of the Vote’. Suffragettes met regularly at the Portman Rooms until their meetings became too large and we have a number of postcards and photographs that give an idea of what it looked like inside. The plan and an interior view of Madame Tussauds suggest that the Ball Room was at least a two-floor affair with skylights. The entrance to the Portman Rooms seems to have been at no. 58 (look at the small protrusion on the right hand side below). I think it lead to the staircase that is here graced by some rather dashing rugby players (what’s with the way the three men on the left are holding their cigarettes?).

Portman Rooms, detail of Goad's map

I have not yet found an announcement or review of the particular event the dress might have been made for. In the spring of 1892 the Haydn Musical Society organised a ball at the Portman Rooms which was supposedly attended by 750 dancers in fancy dress. On that occasion, the prize for the most original costume – unsurprisingly – went to a Mr George M.K. Munro who appeared as ‘Electricity up to date’. His astonishing outfit was described in the Omaru Mail on 2 June 1892:

Mr Munro’s coat was covered with magnets, intertwined with flashes of lightning to represent electricity. The head gear was composed of an immense electric bell, connected by wires to a dry battery concealed in the coat, the connecting ends being attached to a push button mounted as a stud in the shirt. The button hole of the coat was adorned with real and artificial flowers, artfully concealed in which was a tiny electric lamp, which could be made to glow at the will of the operator, producing a most novel effect. The light was produced by a small portable dry accumulator, with a switch for handy manipulation. On the coat was mounted telephones, transmitters and receivers, phonographs, batteries, and braided wire, the whole representing a novel appearance.

I would still maintain that 1892 is a little early for our dress, which brings me to the last known unknown(-ish). Spring was donated in 1956 together with almost 50 pieces of womenswear, all from around the late 19th/early 20th century. Apart from the above-mentioned magazine page, the object file contained only three short letters, establishing the donor as a ‘Mrs N. Bakhle’ with an address in Upper Norwood. In a letter of 29 October, Mrs Bakhle informed the London Museum’s curator that from 31 October she could only be reached via Grindlays Bank at 54 Parliament Street. That was pretty much it: no first name for the donor, no mention of whether she donated her own, or someone else’s clothes.

Fancy Dress, c. 1895 (detail)

I gathered that Bakhle was an Indian name and learned that Grindlays Bank had been set up to facilitate communications and travel to and from India. I thought that Mrs Bakhle might have given away part of her possessions before moving and thankfully managed to find her on a ship’s passenger list: a ‘Rebecca Edith Nirmala Bakhle’ living at the correct address in south-east London travelled to India on 7 November 1956. Shriharsh Bakhle of the same address followed on another boat ten days later. I won’t bore you with all the details I have unearthed, but here’s a summary:

Nirmala (born 1900) was the wife of Shriharsh Chintaman Bakhle (born 1897), a surgeon who rose to the rank of Colonel in the Indian Medical Service. His father, Chintaman Ramchandra Bakhle (born 1871) also worked for the IMS, being appointed Lieutenant Colonel in 1916. Both father and son studied in London and seem to have been based here, travelling – and sometimes spending long periods – in India. Father Chintaman married Sunderabai some time around 1896, Shriharsh being the oldest of the couple’s three sons.

As is the often the case with this kind of research, I have not yet been able to find out much about the two women. As Nirmala, the donor, was only born in 1900 she could not have been the wearer of Spring. Her two English first names – Rebecca and Edith are only mentioned in one of several documents I dug up. They might suggest she was born in England (somehow I don’t think so) and the clothes could be those of her own mother. I have a hunch that Sunderabai is the more likely candidate. She was born in around 1876 so would have been between 18 and 20 when Spring was worn. The fact that she and Chintaman senior probably got married in 1896-ish makes me wonder whether the ball might not have been the occasion where they met or whether they attended it together. This is of course speculation!

Dressing jacket, late 1890s

What next? I hope to find the time to look at the rest of the donated clothes in the hope that they provide any clues. The striking dressing jacket above, the only item of the group that has been photographed (with an entirely unrelated skirt), points to a wearer with discerning taste. Of course I also hope that someone who knows more about this intriguing family will stumble upon this post and get in touch. I would love to know whether the men and women were born here, how they ended up in south London, what happened to Nirmala and Shriharsh’s children who stayed in England when their parents moved/returned to India.

In the meantime, please come and have a look at Show Space while the dress is still out, probably for another month or so. The display also includes some beautiful (I think) Bow and Chelsea porcelain figurines personifying Spring. And if you want to see the gnome (yes, there is a gnome) make sure you visit us before 11 May when he’ll return to our store in Hackney, where he normally resides.

11 thoughts on “A dress for spring

  1. Chris says:

    Are you sure those are supposed to be crocuses? It’s unusual to see them displayed hanging upside down. The presence of several buds on the same stem leads me to think they are more likely to be violets. (Of course since they’re silk we may never know for sure!)

    1. Beatrice says:

      I am not sure. As my flower knowledge leaves rather a lot to be desired, I’d asked one of my colleagues who was quite sure they were crocuses. I had considered violets and had even gone as far as to check whether they’re spring flowers (I really do not much about flora and fauna). The dress is quite similar to one described in an 1896 book on fancy dress, where they suggest trimming a ‘short green skirt’ with snowdrops and violets: http://tinyurl.com/mtwjeec.

      1. Rosemary Ewles says:

        I’m very sure these are violets and snowdrops. Not a crocus in sight! But what a fascinating piece of detective work.

  2. Sandra says:

    I’m interested that you mention suffragettes – the first thing I thought when I saw the dress was that it was in suffragette colours…

    1. beatrice behlen says:

      You are right about the suffragette colours, Sandra. This was also the first thing one of my colleagues said when he saw the dress. But the dress is a little early for it to have that connection.

  3. Sandra says:

    OH, and I’d agree with Chris – those are definitely violets and snowdrops!

  4. Sandra says:

    Violets were very fashionable, BTW. They were brought up by ‘the violet train’ from Dawlish, Devon, to Covent Garden – the first shipment was, if memory serves, in 1891. It was big business – in GB Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle is a Covent Garden violet seller.

    1. beatrice behlen says:

      And thanks for that extra bit of information!

  5. Julie Green says:

    They look very like violets & snowdrops to me and this year – when we’ve had quite a few warm spells – the violets and (especially) snowdrops have already come and gone in London SW9!

  6. David Sumray says:

    Dear Beatrice

    Just in case you’ve not come across them, you might find one of the editions of ‘Fancy Dresses Described; or what to wear at Fancy Balls’ by Arden Holt of interest. Published by Debenham and Freebody, between the late 1870s and mid-1890s.

    Clearly, your frock looks to be mid-1890s, but, interestingly, in the 1887 edition, suggestions for a ‘Spring’ fancy dress include trimming the ‘green silk short skirt’ of the costume with violets and snowdrops. There is also one for a ‘Duchess of Devonshire’ based on the Gainsborough painting, others for ‘Ireland’, Norwegian Peasant, etc. Clearly, favourite themes.

    I have found a reference in provincial newspapers to a fancy dress ball having been held at the Portman Rooms on 13 March 1895 (no more details yet).

    I’ve drawn a blank with the Bakhles so far – as you say, lots of information about his family – although that the three brothers all attended Dulwich College, with their home address given as 95 Knollys Road, SW16, may possibly explain why Shriharsh and Nirmala were living (or staying) in Upper Norwood in the 1950s.

    As ever, good wishes.

    1. Beatrice says:

      Dear David, many thanks, as always! Am very intrigued by the mentioning of a fancy dress ball in March 1895! Thanks also for your reference to the Arden Holt publication. With regards to the Bakhle family, I have now met a descendant who came across this post by accident. I know quite a bit more and am holding out for a photo of the wearer of the spring dress. Hopefully to be explored in a future post! All best wishes, Beatrice

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