Best in show | Costume from the South Ronaldsay Boys’ Ploughing Match and the Festival of the Horse, Orkney - Museums Association

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Best in show | Costume from the South Ronaldsay Boys’ Ploughing Match and the Festival of the Horse, Orkney

Oliver McCall chooses his favourite exhibit from Compton Verney's upcoming show on folk costume
Best In Show Folklore
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Oliver McCall
Curator, Compton Verney Art Gallery

“The vast variety of traditions and customs across the land – so important to their local communities – is a unique and rich element of our national identity, and our exhibition, Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain, displays some remarkable outfits and regalia together for the first time.

There are some very recognisable uniforms worn by different Morris dance sides and some spectacular feathered headdresses from the Notting Hill Carnival. Unusual exhibits include the Whittlesea Straw Bear costume, which looks like a giant hay bale. It is ‘worn’ by a hardy chap who is led around the streets and pubs of a Cambridgeshire village, accompanied by 250 musicians and performers, for one weekend in January.

The exhibition has a striking look, with costumes displayed on cardboard mannequins atop scaffolding podiums, each with colourful banners relating to the tradition they represent.

An immersive audiovisual room will give visitors an idea of what it’s like to be caught up in the melee of a Shrovetide football match or Lincolnshire’s Haxey Hood ‘sway’ as entire villages romp across the countryside.

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The accompanying programme of events explores how costumes are made to relate to the seasons. Visitors can join in straw-hat-making or bring along their own garments to use in our dyeing workshops.

I’m particularly intrigued by the horse costume from the South Ronaldsay Boys’ Ploughing Match and the Festival of the Horse, which draws on the different cultural elements of the unique history of Orkney.

You can see a northern Scandinavian – or Sami – influence, which reflects the Viking past, while the agricultural connection is made by the bridle around the neck and horse brasses.

More contemporary symbols, such as the tinsel and embroidered hearts sewn in to the girl’s Sunday best, illustrate that customs such as the 200-year-old Festival of the Horse continue to be cherished by the younger generations.

Each August, the girls wear these costumes as they parade around the island with the local boys, who carry small tools that enable them to compete in the ploughing match on the beach, where they create intricate rows in the sand.

It’s interesting to see girls represented in this way, as many of the old folk traditions – May Queens aside, of course – are male-dominated.

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We are also looking at groups such as the all-female Boss Morris, which is breaking that mould, as well as reflecting how other dancing sides are changing with the times.

One of our most popular attractions at Compton Verney is a collection of objects associated with local traditions, including the Cotswold Morris practices and the legends of witchcraft in Warwickshire.

The societies that these items hail from know they can trust us to treat the items with respect. These costumes rarely leave their communities and tend to be held by private practitioners or displayed behind the bars of local pubs until they are dusted down for their annual day out with a difference.”

Interview by John Holt. Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain, is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 11 February to 11 June

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