Doreen Lady Brabourne C.I. (1896-1979)

A Passion For Clothes

It is rare for a Museum to receive by donation, a woman’s ‘complete wardrobe’ over her lifetime, but this is what happened to Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery in 1980.  Doreen Lady Brabourne had led a fashion-orientated life, spending her late thirties to early forties in India as a Governor’s wife.  The sophisticated social life of the later part of the British rule in India meant that Doreen needed a large wardrobe of formal and semi-formal dresses, suits, shoes and accessories, as well as practical, more casual wear for relaxing in a hot country.  Doreen returned to England, as a widow, on the brink of the Second World War.  Her British Raj lifestyle Indian garments were all packed away, even the much worn accessories, and were treasured and kept.

Like many other women in wartime London, Doreen was involved in voluntary work. A surviving ‘work dress’ from this date is much worn and patched, as nothing was wasted during the War and shortages affected all social classes.  By 1945 Doreen was 49, and still in mourning.  She took on Mrs Hilda Parnaby as a ‘sewing lady’, to make and alter her clothes, which were mainly soberly styled and in dark tones.  Gradually, Doreen allowed more colour to come back into her wardrobe.  Her outfits for Bombay and Bengal had been in bright colours or tasteful neutrals, but subconsciously she had clearly absorbed the hot pinks, saffron yellows and vibrant greens of the ethnic textiles so characteristic of India.  Doreen seemed to include these colours often in her wardrobe over the years, no doubt aware that they clearly suited her skin tone and dark hair.  Another strong influence on her colour preferences seems to have been the range of glowing greens and blues found in Irish tweeds.  Close ancestral links with Ireland, and spending holiday time with her family at Classiebawn Castle in County Sligo every summer meant that a feel for Irish colours was very much part of Doreen.

Every woman has a personal relationship with her clothes and most of us dislike parting with our outworn clothing.  Secretly, we would all probably like to hoard everything we have ever worn.  Doreen was able to do precisely that, having been brought up to keep everything (a common attitude up to the 1950s), and to be economic through two world wars, she lived her life alongside a gradually increasing virtual clothing archive.

Doreen genuinely loved quantities of clothes, and preferred to have a choice to hand of several inexpensive dresses rather than a single pricey garment.  Her sewing lady was kept busy altering her favourite clothes, as fashion styles changed from square necks to round, and as hems went up or down.  Mending and renovating this much loved wardrobe with an active, busy city and country life went on constantly.

Doreen had an American woman friend, Mrs Majorie Post, whose husband had invented ‘Postum’ (a breakfast drink) and ‘Post Toasties’ (a sort of early cornflake).  Majorie Post was rumoured to be the third wealthiest woman in America, sending Doreen many lavish ball gowns.  Mostly, these were too ostentatious for Doreen’s taste, so Mrs Parnaby was asked to alter and simplify, sometimes out of all recognition.  Some dresses remained half converted, and spare fabric was carefully kept.

As Doreen lived in the West End, she also shopped unostentatiously at Peter Jones in Sloane Square, like many other Londoners.  She made sure that she had plenty of a ‘line’ that suited her, and often bought basics in bulk, and bolts of fabric in the sales.  Storage eventually became very crowded in her London flat.

When Maidstone Museum received the ‘Doreen Lady Brabourne Collection’ its range amazed the curatorial staff:

Autumn and winter dresses and jackets (in Irish tweeds and other woollen fabrics), summer and winter suits (made for India in the 1930s, or of English origin, classically styled), lightweight printed dresses and jackets (many from India), raincoats (including plastic macs of the 1950s), day and evening coats (in a range of interesting fabrics and fashion styles), furs and fur-trimmed garments (though Doreen wore less fur as years went by, out of compassion for wild animals), house coats (from the exotic to utilitarian), evening dresses and skirts (many by American designers), day and evening bags (from monogrammed leather examples of the 1930s to everyday types), parasols (a range of 1930s-50s styles on exotic sticks), sundresses and beachwear (1930s to 1950s in a range of printed and textured fabrics), skirts (from sunray pleats to jewelled felt circular ‘ethnic’ examples), blouses, cardigans and jumpers (every fashion trend from the 1950s to the 1970s), scarves from chiffon Indian silks to woollen mufflers), Chinese shawls (and garments), stoles (for evening in luxurious silks and satins), hats (straw, feather and felt), feather accessories (fans and boas), footwear (an enormous range of reptile, co-respondents, sandals, slippers, boots, galoshes, evening shoes, and synthetic shoes of the 1960s, spanning a lifetime).  Many social history items were included: ‘tinned’ stockings and gloves for India, medicines, cosmetics, body care and sewing equipment, as well as a collection of family lace, including some 18th Century items.

The value of this range of garments and accessories lies in its variety. What can be categorised as ‘upper class’ and classic British clothing is closely related to the average European woman’s dress style aspirations in the greater part of the 20th Century.  Doreen Lady Brabourne’s love of the exotic, ‘un-British’ Indian colours and fabrics is an inspiration that has influenced English fashion trend-setters since the early 1800s, when French ‘aristocratic’ fashion went out of favour.  Doreen’s every-day, chain store fashions are again part of all our realities and her hoarding of everything she wore over her lifetime is a natural, human instinct to do with valuing our individuality.

There is much work still to be done on the Doreen, Lady Brabourne Collection at Maidstone Museum. Right now, the collection is being itemised and basically described, and we are already up to over 2,000 items. It is available for students of dress to research by appointment.


A year after the Great War (1914-1918).  Many women were alone as their husbands or fiancés had been killed – a generation of men wiped out.

Fashion was mature, elegant, feminine and influenced by the cinema. The smart woman’s wardrobe also contained trousers and shorts for beachwear, an American influence.

September 1st Germany invaded Poland – Britain was at war until 1945.  Fabric manufacturing was diverted to war-related purposes and civilian fashion went short.

After the war, a mood of social idealism and the Labour welfare state; rationing finally ended in 1954.  In 1951, a Conservative government under Churchill coincided with an increase in private wealth.  1955-60 saw low inflation and weekly earnings shot up by 34%, creating a fashion boom for the young.  High standards of living and expanding economies in a prosperous consumer society continued until the 1970s.

Lady Brabourne was killed in the assassination of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA.  She was spending part of the August holiday with Lord Mountbatten at Classiebawn Castle in Co. Sligo, Eire, when the family’s fishing boat was bombed.

In 1980, Lord Brabourne (Doreen, Lady Brabourne’s son) offered his mother’s almost complete wardrobe to Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery.  Dating from her time in India during the 1930s to her still fashion-conscious years in London’s West End, it comprised over 2,000 items of clothing, accessories and personal care items.

Classically British
Some British fashion style ‘classics’ are the trenchcoat, tweeds, country clothing, romantic evening wear, the tailoring tradition and paradoxically, ‘Bohemian’ style.

A ‘curator’ collects, preserves, interprets and exhibits historical objects in a museum, for the benefit of visitors and researchers both now and in the future.

Hindu Raja
A Hindu Indian prince.

‘Make Do and Mend’
A wartime slogan.  Clothes were rationed in 1941, and resourceful women remade old clothes into new styles.  In 1943 the Board of Trade published a ‘Make Do and Mend’ booklet ‘to keep clothes looking trim…to renovate children’s outgrown clothes…to turn every scrap…to good advantage…instead of buying new!’

Sewing Lady
A woman with sewing skills employed to ‘keep the lady’s wardrobe in order’, to mend and adapt clothes for a longer life.