Best in show | Red silk dress, 1770s - Museums Association

Conference 2024: The Joy of Museums booking open now – Book before 31 March 2024 for a 10% discount

Conference 2024: The Joy of Museums booking open now – Book before 31 March 2024 for a 10% discount

Best in show | Red silk dress, 1770s

Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, Cumbria
Best In Show
The cherry-red silk dress is supposed to have been owned by Margery Jackson
Gabrielle Heffernan
Curatorial manager at Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery Trust, Carlisle

“Margery Jackson (1722-1812) came from one of the richest families in Carlisle – her father was a successful cloth merchant and the mayor of Carlisle – and this cherry-red silk dress is supposed to have been owned by her. Margery would have spent her young life wearing gorgeous clothes, attending dances and becoming an accomplished young woman. However, we know that she never married and began to hoard her fortune as she got older.

But she also had to fight for her inheritance, which she did fiercely through the courts. Her reputation was very negative, and a memoir written about her in the 1840s describes her as a ‘misanthrope… who likes nobody, whom nobody likes, and who is like nobody’.

So, we’re left with a bit of a mystery – did Margery’s public persona hide a love of beautiful dresses and luxury that was not seen publicly in her later life? We’re not sure, but she’s a fascinating example of a woman who went against the grain.

This luxurious dress was made in the 1770s – Margery would have been in her 50s – and shows one of the high fashions of the period. What makes it so interesting for me is that we’ve been able to use modern techniques to repair the damaged sections – the top of both arms and part of the bodice – and display it as it would have looked.


We worked closely with the Centre for Advanced Textiles at Glasgow School of Art to digitally copy the pattern and then colour match the material by eye. So, the dress is a wonderful combination of late-18th century craftsmanship and 21st-century digital technology.

This dress is part of Tullie House’s 7,000-strong collection of costume. We’ve been looking for ways to provide more access to the collection, and so felt that creating a new permanent Costume Gallery would be a really positive first step in our Project Tullie capital development programme.
We also worked with visitors and community groups to get feedback on all the costumes, and have included this in the interpretation. Each object label has a comment on it.

Margery’s dress is accompanied by five others in the Identity section. These include a blue arts and crafts dress that belonged to Dorothy Howard (1881-1968), a proponent of women’s rights who was on the executive committee of the Women’s Liberal Association. Dorothy’s dress, with its less structured style, represents her liberal and modern values in the early 1900s.

And we’re showing nurse’s scrubs and visor belonging to Evelyn Charlotte Nakachwa, who was born in Uganda and moved to Cumbria. She now works at the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle. The scrubs represent her journey from Uganda to the UK and the vital work that healthcare professionals have played during the Covid pandemic.

Each of the women we represent has a unique story to tell. Margery – through her dresses – sets the scene for this as a formidably independent character in 18th-century Carlisle whose reputation has survived.”

Interview by Eleanor Mills. The Costume Collection at Tullie House opened in July and is the first stage of the Project Tullie redevelopment

Leave a comment

You must be to post a comment.


Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.