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Playing by the rules: Childhood, dress and imagination

Start Date 10 February 2024
End Date 03 November 2024
Venue Killerton House
Location Devon,England
Curator Shelley Tobin
Image of little girl playing. Mannequins dressed in floral dresses children's wear.
Curator Shelley Tobin installing a garment onto a mannequin.

Killerton House is home to the National Trust’s biggest fashion collection, with more than 20,000 items of historic clothing and accessories. The collection, which includes pieces from as far back as the 17th century, was started by Paulise de Bush before it was taken on by the team at Killerton in the 1970s.

New 2024 fashion exhibition 

‘Playing by the rules: Childhood, dress and imagination’ is now open daily upstairs in the house until Sunday 3 November, 11am – 4pm (last entry 3.30pm).

 Playing by the rules: childhood, dress and imagination 

Join us for the very exciting new fashion exhibition in 2024, themed around childhood. The exhibition will draw on the Killerton collection and explore children’s clothing of the 19th and 20th centuries, many of them part of the Margaret Bodley collection of children’s clothes which was acquired by the National Trust in the early 1980s. We’re having fun with the theme, highlighting formal clothes and fancy dress, more practical clothes for active play, and uniforms for school and work. It’s not all about the clothes though, a selection toys and games from the collection will also be on display.

Five local Brownie and Guide units have been working with us to produce future fashion designs, along with taking on the task of ‘young curators’ for one of the display areas. There’ll be plenty to get involved with too, find activities for younger visitors throughout the exhibition.

What’s in the collection? 

What started out as the collection of one woman, Paulise de Bush, has grown since it arrived at Killerton in 1978. It now contains a huge selection of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and accessories.

The oldest piece is a men’s sleeved waistcoat dating from 1690. However, it’s 20th-century fashion that’s particularly well represented, with a large number of couture pieces from big-name designers such as Chanel appearing in the collection.

A famous piece is the Charles Bayer corset, and there’s also a bridal accessory from about 1840. As well as clothing, there are many pairs of shoes and impressive examples of jewellery, fans and handbags.

 Exhibiting the fashion 

The vast collection is meticulously cared for by a team of curators. As it’s impossible to display every item at once, the fashion team create regular exhibitions on the first floor of the house. Each exhibition showcases about 80-100 items from the collection.

Who was Paulise de Bush? 

During the Second World War, Paulise de Bush, who lived near Aston Tirrold in Oxfordshire, noticed that her uncle, Victor Anger, was having his house cleared out. Items being removed included a huge selection of period clothes, mainly dresses from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not wanting to let such beautiful costumes go to waste, Paulise bought many of them for use in her drama group, The Stockwell Players.

Building a mighty collection 

Paulise became an enthusiastic collector of both theatrical and historical costumes. Some of these were used in her theatre productions, but she also began exhibiting the costumes. She then befriended a lady named Atherton Harrison at a Women’s Institute talk.

Atherton was trained in theatre design, while her husband, Harvey Harrison, was a filmmaker. In 1965, the three put together a 35-minute film featuring Paulise’s collection, called Fame and Fashion.

 The collection comes to Killerton 

Before Paulise died in 1975, she asked Atherton to make sure that the collection went somewhere where it would be shared and viewed. True to her word, Atherton found a home for her friend’s vast period costume collection at Killerton, just as the house was opening to the public in 1977.

Paulise’s collection has been cared for, and added to, by the Costume Team here ever since. Atherton was consulted on the fashion displays at Killerton until she retired in 1994.


Images courtesy of Killteron House. Photos: Steve Haywood.