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Step back in time at new Garioch Heritage Centre fashion exhibition

The late Joan Burnett of Newmachar amassed a huge collection of period costumes and accessories, some of which are currently on show at GHC. A fashion show is to follow in November.

Joan Burnett and some of the pieces visitors will be able to see. Image: Garioch Heritage Society
Joan Burnett and some of the pieces visitors will be able to see. Image: Garioch Heritage Society

If you have a passion for fashion, there’s an unmissable exhibition for you at Garioch Heritage Centre, Inverurie.

Fashion Through the Ages is far more than just a collection of gorgeous clothes and accessories.

The exhibition’s allure has been so great that instead of closing on September 3 as planned, the show is re-opening on October 3 for a further five weeks.

Fashion with a flourish

What’s more it will finish with a flourish, with a fashion show, ‘Fashion, Fizz and Frivolity’ to show off some of the less fragile costumes- anyone with a 22” waist out there who could help model?

There will be two shows at the museum on Saturday November 11, at 2.30 and 7.30pm.

In Fashion Through the Ages, some of the exhibits are from the collection of a modest lady little known outside of the Aberdeen area, but who was a real force in period fashion collection.

Nina Ricci dress, late 1950s from the Joan Burnett Collection at Garioch Heritage Centre. Image: Joan Bruce, Garioch Heritage Society

Joan Burnett (1926-2007) collected hundreds of garments, items of underwear, hats, handbags and jewellery dating from the 17th century to the 1980s.

She would display them in regular shows in venues ranging from Aberdeen Town House, Leith Hall and Duff House to Cuminestown primary school.

Fashion collector Joan Burnett was born in Hong Kong and travelled the world before settling in Newmachar

Joan was born in Hong Kong, and thanks to her prodigious artistic talent, she studied Fine Arts at Reading Art College at the age of 15.

This was all the more impressive considering she suffered from poor eyesight.

She married at 18 and went to East Africa with her husband, who was completing his PhD in Entomology.

In Africa, she taught art before eventually returning to the UK and relocating Newmachar, Aberdeenshire.

It was here that Joan’s passion for costumes and textile design ignited, prompted by the gift of a Victorian dress.

On show at the Fashion Through The Ages exhibition at Garioch Heritage Centre, a black evening dress, 1930s/40s from the Joan Burnett Collection. Image: Joan Bruce, Garioch Heritage Society

She liaised with dealers, established important contacts in the community and gained a reputation as a serious collector, often finding herself the beneficiary of some remarkable period costumes.

The fashion shows began

In 1982, Joan was asked by her local Church Guild to show some of her dresses, and such was its popularity, things quickly took off and Joan found herself putting on several shows a year.

Eventually her catwalks featured as many as 65 outfits.

Joan said that she believed her shows were such a success because “the clothes were all genuine and real and from the period.”

She was also concerned with historical accuracy, preserving the costumes in their original designs without alteration.

This 1940s dress is from the Joan Burnett collection and on display at the Garioch Heritage Centre. Image Joan Bruce, Garioch Heritage Society

And she could turn her hand to creating undergarments such as petticoats and crinolines where need to achieve the right shape for the outfit.

Although Joan was a good public speaker, she didn’t seek the limelight, preferring to stay quietly in the background and allowing others to take her life’s work into the public eye.

No Size Zeros required

Joan had a group of models she turned to show off her collection in the many fashion shows she organised, remembers one of her dressers, Leah Morrison.

She said: “The show programme was determined by who could model that night.

“Joan needed models who fitted the clothes, not the other way round.

“No size zero models needed here, and unlike them, Joan’s models looked forward to the interval cup of tea and ‘fine piece’.”

The late Joan Burnett compered fashion shows featuring clothes from her own collection of period costumes. She’s pictured here with two of her models. Image: Leah Morrison

Joan’s level of expertise kept everyone on their toes.

Leah, who acted as a dresser to Joan’s shows for a number of years, said: “She was able to talk without notes about each costume in the show.

“She could also spot an incorrect accessory, or a hat place on the wrong part of the head for that period the minute the model walked into the room.”

Joan was a great MC

Although shy and retiring, Joan was a consummate compere during the shows too.

“If a backstage incident occurred and we had to send someone out of sequence she knew immediately something had happened but was able to carry on regardless without the audience ever knowing.”

Preparing for the shows was long, hard work.

“Joan would spend the full day and part of the previous day preparing the costumes and packing them in their various baskets and bags, and would take them downstairs for a quick getaway when the transport arrived.

“Any member of Joan’s team who carried these items back upstairs after a show will tell you that it was no mean task.

“After a show, the costumes were unpacked, and hung back on their racks in Joan’s spare bedroom, and it was often well after midnight before Joan’s day was finished.”

Part of the Joan Burnett collection donated to AAGM

When she retired from showing her collection, Joan, who died in 2007, donated a number of her items to Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum (AAGM)

Morna Annandale, a curator at AAGM said the Joan Burnett Collection has much to teach us about social history.

“Through her fashion shows Mrs Burnett aimed not only to entertain but also to education her audience about how ladies’ costume reflected the social restriction that were placed on them.

Women fortunate today

“They illustrate how fortunate women are today to be free of the strict dress code and the constraints imposed by society through underwear and corsetry.”

The late Margaret Walker, dressmaker and seamstress was instrumental in starting the Joan Burnett Collection fashion shows. Image: Garioch Heritage Society.

Joan Bruce of Garioch Heritage Society (GHS) added that the Fashion Through the Ages exhibition also pays tribute to the late Margaret Walker who dedicated her considerable skills in needlecraft and dressmaking to the collection held by GHS, and was instrumental in starting Joan’s exhibitions.