Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain

Making Mischief exhibition

The opening banner of the exhibition

Making Mischief is a rather wonderful exhibition at Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire, and is on until 11th June 2023.

The exhibition fulfils its obvious role of exhibiting and explaining traditional British folk costume without shying away from discussing issues such as the (thankfully now declining) use of blackface in morris troops.

Morris costume dolls

A selection of British morris costumes depicted on dolls

It also takes a refreshingly inclusive approach to folk costume, including some examples of the fantastic costumes worn at Britain’s African-Caribbean carnival traditions that started in the mid-twentieth century rather than only focusing on the 19th and 20th century revivals of white British folk costume — a whole variety of morris costumes, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Whittlesea’s Straw Bear, South Queensferry’s Burryman, the Mari Lwyd of South Wales — all of which are fully and properly represented here as in many other archives.

Morris costume Morris doll (Makara Morris) Mari Lwyd

A traditional morris costume, the Makara Morris costume depicted on a doll, and two Mari Lwyd costumes

The exhibition also takes the opportunity to focus on the inclusion of women, non-binary, and LGBTQ+ people within folk costume and folk tradition, starting with May Queen costumes from the 19th and 20th century revival, through the LGBTQ+ representation — courtesy of the Gay Bogies and Jackie and the Queens — in the Hastings Jack in the Green festival, to Stroud’s all-female Boss Morris formed in 2015, whose costumes take as much from club culture as historical tradition.

Jack in the Green costume (Spencer Horne) Jack in the Green costume (Simon Costin) Boss Morris costume

Spencer Horne’s Jack in the Green costume, Simon Costin’s Jack in the Green costume, the Boss Morris costume

The combination of old and new wonderfully emphasises the living and ever-changing nature of folk costume (and traditions and tales), rather than incorrectly approaching it as something dead, frozen, and unchanging.

And the living and changing nature is an important point that is often, although not always, missing from explorations of folk customs and costume.

The view of them as living and growing things is, for me at least, a far more positive and exciting perspective than the opposing position of them as things that should remain unchanged and unchangeable, growing ever less relevant.

This seems especially obvious when you consider that these customs and costumes are mainly revivals, or more accurately re-inventions based not just on historical records, but also on supposition and imagination, that have started up in the past hundred years or so.

And so Making Mischief is a wonderfully vibrant exhibition: exploring the past, documenting the present, and hinting at the future.

Getting there with Public Transport

The nearest station is Leamington Spa. From that train station catch the number 77 Stagecoach bus (heading to Stratford-upon-Avon) and after approximately 48 minutes get off at Compton Verney (the stop is close to the entrance drive to the Art Gallery). There is a walk of approximately 10–15 minutes from the bus stop, through the grounds, to the Art Gallery.

Exhibition details: Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain

Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain is the first exhibition dedicated to the rich tapestry of folk customs found in the UK today. It will explore the central role played by costume in local and seasonal folk customs, bringing together over 40 costumes created, customised, and worn by individual practitioners, many of which have never been exhibited before.

Making Mischief is both a celebration of grassroots traditions and a challenge to preconceptions about folk customs being fixed and nostalgic. It will highlight evolving practices such as the rise of all-female Morris groups and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ performers in customs such as the Hastings Jack in the Green. Loans from the Museum of British Folklore, the English Folk Dance and Song Society and the English Folk Costume Archive will be used alongside works from Compton Verney’s collection to trace the origins of folk costume in Britain across several centuries. The exhibition also highlights how strong concerns for and connections with the environment and natural world are across these very different communities.

The exhibition is curated by Simon Costin and Mellany Robinson, of the Museum of British Folklore, and Professor Amy De La Haye, Rootstein Hopkins Chair of Dress History & Curatorship and Joint Director of the Research Centre for Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion, UAL, in collaboration with Compton Verney. The exhibition and an ambitious public programme of workshops, talks and new commissions is generously supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Venue: Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park
Compton Verney, Warwickshire, CV35 9HZ