In Gallery 5 at the Museum of Childhood, there is a room setting of a children’s party. It’s one of my favourite parts of the museum – a strange group of mannequins dressed in various costumes, with toys and games spread round their feet and 30-year-old plastic food sitting uneaten on the table.
Two of the costumes in the display were sent to the museum by Joan Somerville in 1982. She wrote at the time that she had “come across the enclosed items which I kept for sentimental reasons… I trust you will not be offended by my sending them without prior consultation”.
They were a lovely green velvet Elizabethan-style costume, which Joan remembered had been “made for me by an Indian tailor in Madras over 55 years ago” and a Norwegian national costume “sent to me after the War by Norwegians I befriended during their stay here while Norway was occupied”.
An annotation states that the donor was 63 at the time of the letter, and that the costume was in fact Sir Walter Raleigh. What a parcel to receive! Such beautiful costumes, and with these international links. Imagine the 8 year old child in Madras in 1927, being fitted for a costume of the great Elizabethan explorer Raleigh! And how touching that after befriending refugees in the 1940s, Joan was given this costume – such a symbol of national pride and identity – in thanks, and perhaps thereby gaining the status of an honorary Norwegian.
In March 2000, Joan’s daughter Inez visited the museum while she was on holiday in Edinburgh. Once she’d returned to her home in Canada, she wrote to the curators. The Norwegian costume, she said, “actually came from Norway. Our father, Captain William Somerville, participated in the liberation of Norway in 1945 and this outfit was given to him by friends he made there, as an expression of gratitude”. She enclosed a photo of her sister Monica wearing the costume in 1952/3.
Inez’s description of the green velvet costume also diverges a little from Joan’s earlier account – as stories passed through generations to second-hand witnesses often do. It had been made in 1929, she says, and her mother wore it “in a school play, where she was Sir Walter Raleigh (and must have felt excessively warm under the South Indian sun).”
But so evocatively, Inez went on to tell of her own experience wearing the costume. “At the age of 8 or thereabouts… we put on a class play “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”. I remember very little about this, except for the audience snickering when I claimed the immortal lines: “Sure, I have been to the wars and am no longer in the first flush of youth” (aged 8). I believe I glanced at the audience with reproving indignation, whereupon they snickered some more”. Such hauteur on the school stage must have been partly due to the fine costume and dignified ruff of such a treasured family hand-me-down.
The importance of clothing and these childhood experiences in founding family identities is touched upon in both letters. Joan describes the “sentimental” reasons for keeping the costumes, which seem clearly bound with ideas of gifts, thanks, exchange and appropriation between generations. The sense of entwining identity is made clearer in Inez’s letter, which ends: “My mother and I (the green velvet suit children) and my sister, hope that this extra information can be useful”. Inez and Joan are grouped as children literally ‘cut from the same cloth’.