Time Travel: A Visit to the Geffrye Museum

The Brewster Family, 1736 by Thomas Bardwell, Geffrye Museum Collection

I have come to suspect that my interest in historic costume and textiles may be a bi-product of my early childhood fascination with time travel. To be able to experience life and the material culture of other time periods was a deep desire I have not let go of. Visits to period rooms in museums approximate this experience, and have therefore become dear to me as trips into the simulated past.  The Geffrye Museum, London’s Museum of the Home, is presented as a walk through four centuries of British Middle class living rooms, and takes the visitor on a journey through the customs, fashions and social climate of their eras.

The drawing room of 1870

From the 17th century up until the turn of the 21st, the museum consists of chronologically presented period rooms, composed of original and reproduction features.

The living room, 1965

Throughout the galleries, interactive exhibits and smaller displays invite visitors to explore textiles, technology and taste.  A series of replica chairs for visitors even allow for the feeling of sitting in the rooms!

The collection of the museum comprises furniture and decorative objects, as well as textiles, printed matter and painted images that depict domestic life in Britain.  While the museum does not hold a collection of clothing, the presence of fashion pervades the museum, in everything from tea sets and television sets,and surveys changing tastes in not only objects but codes of behaviour and etiquette.

17th Century scissors and case, Geffrye Museum collection

These aspects of fashion in the larger sense are vital for researchers of fashion in dress to be familiar with, and the Geffrye Museum is a wonderfully rich source for this kind of information.  A wonderful example of the visual dialogue between home furnishings an dress is to be seen in James Laver’s 1949 book, Style in Costume. This is a favourite book in my library, and I never tire of flipping though its double page spreads that parallel silhouettes in costume and architecture and interiors. It’s a somewhat rare book, but there are copies to be had, and it sits on the shelves of many history libraries I have visited.

Art nouveau fashion and furnishing circa 1902, from James Laver's Style in Costume

A lady and a lamp of 1895 in James Laver's Style in Costume

The Geffrye Museum has an online search the collections function, and virtual tour through the period rooms. The museum also houses a public reading room, with shelves full of books on furniture, architecture, textiles and decorative arts, and holds an impressive specialist research collection.

The reading room at the Geffrye Museum

The Geffrye Museum has been host to some landmark decorative arts exhibitions, as evidenced by the fact that their exhibition catalogs are still in print, decades after they have occurred.  I couldn’t resist taking home two of them!

In 1974, the museum presented CC41: Utility Furniture and Fashion 1941-1951, which surveyed the output and history of the British World War II rationing and utlility schemes. This is a topic that is receiving increasing attention due to the resurgence of 1940s styles and a renewed interest in cultural life during wartime.  The paperback catalogue available in the gift shop and online at the CC41 Shop, and is a concise and informative overview of the creative ingenuity of Britain in the face of  adversity.

CC41 Exhibition Catalog

Also still available for purchase is the wonderfully illustrated catalog of Putting on the Style: Setting up Home in the 1950s, which the museum hosted in 1990. This exhibit looked at the shift away from austerity and into the modern mid-century through a new relationship with abundance, consumerism and design for the home.  This book is chock full of fantastic photographs of British home interior as well as sartorial fashions. There are a few copies for sale in the Amazon marketplace!

Loft style living room, 1998

So, while my dreams of navigating through time may not be realised in the near future, I am glad that the Geffrye Museum is only a short bus ride away from my home.  And after the visit I am considering the meaning of my home decorating choices and how they reflect my tastes and the tastes of the moment.

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Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.