Costume and Textiles

Our fabulous costume collection, originating in 1823, has deep roots in Whitby’s history. The town’s geographical situation demanded self-sufficiency, thus the textile industry, in the form of tailoring, dressmaking, millinery and shoemaking, engaged many workers. The rise of Whitby as a Victorian tourist destination further inspired the local drapery trade.

The ‘textile spirit of Whitby has been captured in great detail in The Textile History of Whitby 1700–1914, a book written by textile historian Viveka Hansen. Derived from the museum’s’ library and archive and the collection itself, and containing many important photographs, the volume is a wonderful source of information and education on the historical context of costume in Whitby.

To preserve the quality and condition of the collection, and to conserve the Victorian and Edwardian fabrics, displays are for a limited period and are changed annually. Our themed exhibitions depict an array of eras and aspects of Whitby life. In 2023, we will be presenting star artefacts for the museum’s bicentenary

Included in this collection

Collection highlights

The costume collection is unique for a small town, with some 200 dresses designed to be worn during the day, afternoon or evening, for walking, for promenading, and for dinner. They date from the Victorian and Edwardian periods to the twentieth century.

There is a fabulous collection of 200 pairs of shoes including Georgian heels dated 1760, which were featured in a publication in 1905, thought to be gentlemens shoes. Brocaded satin shoe and clog (1710) have recently been conserved as a fine example of an overshoe which used to protect the satin shoe from mud on the street.

Brocaded satin shoe and clog (1710)

Georgian heeled shoes (1760)

Mourning/wedding dress in black beaded satin (1870)

One of our highlights is a black beaded satin mourning /wedding dress, which was worn by a Mrs Gardener in 1874, after the death of her father prior to her marriage.

Queen Victoria nightdress

A nightgown worn by Queen Victoria, with monogram ‘VR’, believed to have been left when she visited Whitby, is in the collection.

There are many hundreds of other garments and accessories such as shawls, hats, jet-beaded capes, fans, gloves, parasols, under-garments, nightwear and children’s clothes.

There are some lovely examples of 1920 bathing costumes, art nouveau costume and many examples of local interest including garments labelled to Welburn Brothers shop, Bridge Street (1885), Spantons on Flowergate (1883), hats made by Mrs Thornton of Flowergate (1879), Staithes bonnets and fisherman’s ganseys.

1920s bathing costumes

Label – Wellburn Brothers

Hat Label – 1880

This amazing collection of over 2000 items is stored and displayed in a purpose-built gallery and store in the new wing of the museum.


Recent Costume Exhibitions

The exhibition in the Costume Gallery is normally changed annually, each exhibition featuring a different range of artifacts from the collection. Previous exhibitions have covered

  • 2014  Mourning wear and the Goths
  • 2015  Victorian under-garments and night wear
  • 2016  Wedding dress 1800–1900
  • 2017  Shoes and shoemaking in Whitby
  • 2018  The Victorian seaside and tourism
  • 2019  The cost of fashion on the environment
  • 2020  Hats and millinery in Whitby
  • 2021  Whitby weddings 1950–1999, as published in the Whitby Gazette

The following photographs show garments presented in recent exhibitions.

2017 Exhibition – Shoes and shoemaking in Whitby

2015 Exhibition – Victorian under-garments and night wear

2015 Exhibition – Victorian under-garments and night wear

2019 Exhibition – The cost of fashion on the environment

2018 Exhibition – The Victorian seaside and tourism

2020 Exhibition – Hats and millinery in Whitby

2020 Exhibition – Hats and millinery in Whitby


The Textile History of Whitby by Viveka Hansen


Whitby, situated on the North Sea coast is foremost associated with its rich history during the period 1700 to 1914; the early alum industry, James Cook, whaling fleets, fishing, tourism and Victorian jet manufacturing. The town was relatively isolated by land until the coming of the railway, though accessible both locally and internationally by sea, and its geographical situation had substantial implications for transport both at home and abroad. Its population ensured a constant local need for textiles, in earlier years with the manufacture of sailcloth and sails as well as trade in expensive fabrics with other British ports and foreign destinations. Then in the later part of the research period, many hundreds of textile workers were needed for tailoring, dressmaking, drapery and other closely related activities, including laundry. These developments reflected the increasing demand nationwide from the growing middle classes to own more clothes, while Whitby’s steady development as a holiday resort during the Victorian period strongly influenced the local drapery trade. So Whitby came to have special social and historical textile needs of its own, as well as obvious similarities to many other towns of similar size. However, up to now the town’s rich and complex textile history has been rather unknown, therefore this monograph’s collated in depth studies presents a valuable insight into the detailed account of the various trades through numerous archival and visual sources.

SUBJECTS: Alum & Natural dyeing, Archive studies, Art history, Decorative arts, Economic history, Embroidery, Fashion history, Interior design, Laundry, Knitting, Local history – Whitby and Yorkshire, Material Culture, Manufacturing & Trading, Museology, Port History, Printing History (prints, advertisements etc), Sail-making & weaving, Social History, Textile recycling.


The Textile historian Viveka Hansen’s studies of the material in combination with the writing of the main text and three appendixes, include a large number of primary sources in the form of; clothing, accessories, textile tools, letters, deeds, censuses, parish church registers, maps, paintings etc. Additionally, a large selection of local photographs by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe – connected to the textile trade, clothing and everyday life is included – already a highly esteemed photographic artist in the 1880s. These sources are today to the greatest extent kept at Whitby Museum (Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society); library, archive and museum collections in Pannett Park, Whitby. The research for the monograph has secondarily taken place at other museums and institutions; in Whitby, North Yorkshire, Leeds, London, Oxford and in coastal towns throughout northern Europe.

  • A monograph based on 8 years of textile research.
  • An interdisciplinary study.
  • The importance of a combination of theoretical and practical knowledge – giving textile research a deeper understanding.