Field Trip: Fashion and Uniform at the Museum of London



Last weekend, Field Grey visited the Museum of London. Not for the first time, we wandered around the museum’s permanent collection in search of fashion and uniform inspiration. From the Romans to the 2012 Olympics, the pieces on display offer a unique insight into uniform in London over the ages and how the capital’s fashions have defined eras.


The oldest example of uniform in the museum’s collection is a medieval harbergeon, or chain mail shirt, from the 1300s. A time consuming, expensive piece of armour, it is an exquisite piece of engineering made up of riveted iron rings.


The museum possesses two replicas of armour from the Roman era – the originals can be found in the British Museum – but these two objects were dredged from the Thames in the 19th century. A dramatic horned helmet and the façade of a shield are on display.


On to the 1400s, when the British Monarchy introduced a series of dress codes to establish distinctions between professions and, fundamentally, classes. Citizens not wearing the enforced ‘uniforms’ could be punished, particularly with heavy fines. This knitted cap, worn by working men, evoked an image of a businessman and were offered in a variety of styles and prices.


During the 16th century, men wore jerkins and codpieces to express masculinity. These leather pieces from around the 1550s conveyed strength and power.


A fireman’s helmet from around the time of the Great Fire includes the trademark huge brim.


Fans were a huge part of fashion during the late 18th century – some were made in London, while others were imported from France and China. The elaborate decorations tell stories and commemorate public events, from fireworks displays to assassination attempts!


This breathtaking mantua was worn by Ann Fanshaw, Lady Mayoress of the City of London. It reportedly took six months to weave and features illustrations of hops, barley and bales to celebrate Ann’s father’s profession as a brewer. God knows how she got through doors.


One of the most decorative pieces of costume on display is Richard St George’s military uniform from (about) 1743. The red and yellow cloak features elaborate embroidery.


One of the highlights of the museum’s collection is the Pleasure Gardens room; a room dedicated to the open spaces for high society, including royalty, where the upper classes would be entertained by jesters and harlequins. Prostitutes and pickpockets would stalk the gardens, too, making them a vibrant and often intimidating location. Fashion was key, and many examples of dresses of the era are on display, with millinery by Phillip Treacy inspired by the styles of the time.




On to the 20th century, when London’s West End established itself as a destination for brash and debauched entertainment for all social classes. The museum possesses dresses and coats worn by high society ladies, including fashions inspired by Egyptian discoveries and classic ‘roaring Twenties’ looks, such as straight-line cuts and ‘flapper’ dresses.


An iconic Pearly King suit is also on display:


With the advent of war, London’s women took on roles previously only occupied by men. This elegant uniform was worn by bus conductresses during the First World War. The simple design – a wool coat with synched belted waist, gave women a newfound confidence. Contrasting piping and brass buttons gave a sense of authority, too.


Similarly, the war called for an influx of women into the nursing profession, and the museum hold’s a typical example of a wartime nurse’s uniform, with white apron and red cross emblem.


The Lyons Nippies – the glamorous waitresses of the Lyons tea shops in the 1920s – are celebrated in a special reconstruction of a Lyons café. The façade is the original frontage from a store near Piccadilly Circus and one of the iconic maid-like hats are on display.


The museum has some fascinating illustrated pieces from the 1940s and 1950s, including this Festival of Britain commemorative scarf, and a child’s dress worn to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The styles of illustration are similar – playful, colourful drawings to represent events of the time.



A wide variety of fashions from 1950s – 1980s are on display, too – particularly those with London relevance. Fascinating items include a Beatles dress worn by a woman selling programmes at the A Hard Day’s Night premierefrom 1964, dresses designed by Mary Quant and shoes designed by BIBA, and a Vivienne Westwood/Keith Haring jacket from her infamous ‘Witches’ collection of 1983.





In a separate room, a number of fantastic uniform-related items that have been donated by Londoners feature. They are presented alongside the mayoral coach and a glorious coachman’s state uniform from 1905:


The donated items include an Armani womenswear suit and Hérmes scarf donated by a manager at RBS, a chainmail glove donated by a butcher at Smithfield Market, and a safety helmet worn by a BT engineer following the IRA bombing of Bishopgate in 1993.




Finally, what better way to finish our round up than with one of the most famous uniforms from 2012? Yep, the Museum of London produly boasts Tom Daley’s swimming trunks. He kindly donated them a year after diving to silver at the London 2012 Olympics.


All images by Matt Bramford for Field Grey; for more information on the Museum of London, visit the website.