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The Polar Museum: news blog

Fancy Dress at SPRI

I thought it would be fun to write a blog about a costume we have in the reserve collection at SPRI.

As I was condition checking the textiles I came across a very interesting box (I find boxes fascinating as you never know what is going to be inside, and somehow it is always slightly disappointing when it is empty). However, in this case the box was far from empty!

The first parcel I unwrapped was a hat in the shape of Mount Erebus, with a ship in the foreground and two penguins on an ice floe. Around the brim were glass icicles.

Hat in the shape of Mount Erebus

As it was a bit squashed I went to the Archives to see if we had any information about how it should look. Luckily there was lots of information as Mrs Dorothy Irving Bell (to whom the costume belonged) had bequeathed her archives to SPRI.

Mrs Irving Bell wearing the fancy dress costume at the Chelsea Art Ball in 1923

Mrs Irving Bell wearing the fancy dress costume at the Chelsea Art Ball in 1923.

As you can see, the hat had a completely different shape in 1923 than it does now. Information like this is very useful to conservators as it takes the guesswork out of how an object should look. On the reverse of the image is a handwritten account of the evening that brings the costume to life.

“Chelsea Arts Club Ball
Feb 7th 1923 – Dancing 10pm – 5am

Decorated by F. Leish + Capt. Hodge, assisted by the Students of the Architectural Association, Com. Frank Wild, R.N.+ the Officers of the Quest.

This being so it was staggering to find a Polar Bear on the top of the S. Pole in the middle of the dance floor! Worsley was so upset by this that he tried to push me to the Pole to remove the Bear but the whole enormous structure trembled and I was excused this expedition in spite of being correctly dressed for the part!”

Christmas Card sent to SPRI in 1972

This image was sent as a Christmas Card to SPRI in 1972.

Also in the box were the sledging mitts and jump suit, but unfortunately not the shoes, each with their own little penguin sitting on the toes.

As for Mrs Irving Bell (known to her friends as ‘Squibbs’), she was a fascinating lady who had a life-long interest in Polar exploration and was fortunate to have known many of the explorers first hand. Her relationship with SPRI dates back to the earliest days and I also found in the archives her invitation to the opening of the Institute in 1934.

(Images © SPRI / Fiona Cahill)

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