Creating a replica debutante gown from the late 19th century is a challenging task. Follow the story, as told by the Trust’s Senior Costume Interpreter, Alison Phillips, of how and why the museum was commissioned to create one of these iconic garments for Lanhydrock, a National Trust property in Cornwall.

The Costume Project at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust has been making bespoke historic costume since 2004, working to commission for museums around the country. Some of the museums we have produced costume for include The Historic Royal Palaces, The Fashion Museum in Bath, and Quarry Bank Mill amongst many others. All our costumes are created using historic sources, original pattern references and archive images, which provide authentic reproductions for our customer’s needs.

Last year, the museum was contacted by the Senior Collections and House Manager at the National Trust property Lanhydrock, in Cornwall. Lanhydrock is a late Victorian Country House once owned by the Agar–Robarte family.

The email caused considerable excitement: ‘please could you quote for a reproduction debutante gown of 1896’. This is an impressive gown, comparable to a wedding dress, and worn only by a young woman on the occasion of her ‘coming out into society’ and being presented to the reigning Monarch, in this case Queen Victoria. Everilda Agar-Robarte was the second of four daughters in the Agar–Robarte family to be presented, and the gown is to be part of a display that will tell her story.

The quote was sent, and we quietly held our breath.

Studio photograph showing the Hon. Everilda Agar-Robartes (1880-1969) in her debutante gown, 1898. This image was used to replicate the gown. © Lanhydrock House, National Trust / Jeannette Scott & John Browning

Happily, the order was confirmed, and the work scheduled for the dark month of January 2023. Research on the history of the debutante traditions began several months in advance in November 2022. Comparable images were found, suitable pattern books referred to, and the portrait of Everilda was studied for every detail. Most people are surprised by the process we go through to create historic clothing, assuming we buy a pattern, and then sit and sew all day – this is a great opportunity to blow that myth out of the water.

First fabric, mannequin, flowers, ribbons, feathers, and haberdashery are sourced. Patterns are drafted by us. A quarantine area is measured out on the floor within the Costume Project workroom – no one is allowed to cross the black and yellow tape marking the perimeter unless qualified to do so.

Then construction begins:

Underwear always comes first. A costume is constructed from the inside to the out; corset, rump, false legs, and petticoats are constructed to sculpt the perfect Victorian shape.

Then the bodice ‘toile’ is made – I am often asked what this means – it is a calico pattern drafted on the dummy to provide a very accurate fit.

The fabric is cut: 100% pure duchesse silk requiring some bravery and manhandling. The skirt is made first and fully backed with a muslin layer with a deep tarlatan stiffening put in the hem. Bodice and sleeves come next, and the dress starts to take shape.

The bottom of the dress showing the silk flowers and ruched tulle details.

Fine tulle (a very fine net fabric) is draped and ruched almost everywhere. The detachable train at 3.25 metres long is made with an unusual padded detail around the hem. More tulle is added. Then 145 best silk flowers and leaves are buried in the gathered tulle and hand stitched in place. Still more tulle is bought – somehow we did not have enough! Ribbons and fastenings go on. The veil turns out to be the simplest part but not the two feather headdresses, one of which has to be constructed with sprung steel wire to make it strong enough for visitors to try on. The gloves arrive – they are the wrong colour – more are found.

The completed dress is photographed and finally packed and despatched in specially bought boxes – so big that they almost don’t fit in the courier’s vehicle.

the Hon. Everilda Agar-Robartes (1880-1969) in her debutante gown, 1898 [left] and the completed replica made by the Trust's Costume Project [right].

During the making of this gown, we discovered some surprising facts about the etiquette surrounding the debutante tradition. The necessary three white feathers of the headdress were essential for presentation to Queen Victoria, whereas previous monarchs required just one or two. The colour of the dress had to be white, ivory or occasionally a very pale shade of pink or similar. The debutante could at no time turn her back on the monarch so would have to pick up the enormous train, while carrying a large bouquet of fresh flowers and, we understand, reverse from the room while remaining elegant and attempting not to trip over. Debutante traditions began to decline when the late Queen Elizabeth II announced in 1958 that she would no longer have debutantes presented at court.

All the Costume Project volunteers and staff had a hand in creating this huge gown. Excluding the research and purchasing, the dress took approximately two and a half weeks to make, which included a considerable amount of speed stitching. Our gown is already installed and on display at Lanhydrock and a huge thank you goes out to the Costume Project team for giving both their time and skill.


You can find out more about the Trust's Costume Project here.

The gown on display at Lanhydrock in Cornwall. Photo credit to Faye Rason.