See some of the eveningwear garments on display in Lotherton’s fashion exhibition in 360 degrees and zoom in to inspect the finer details.

What Shall I Wear is an exhibition celebrating the return of eveningwear and the changing perceptions of dressing-up after dusk.

Our online showcase highlights some spectacular garments in 360 degrees, along with the story behind the outfit.

See the exhibition at Lotherton to explore more of our collection, plus garments kindly loaned from local people and other organisations.

Evening Dress

Norman Hartnell (1901 – 1979)
About 1935
Silk lace

This 1930s evening dress was made by the London couturier Norman Hartnell. Closely associated with the British Royal family he designed many dresses for Queen Elizabeth II including her wedding dress in 1947 and the gown she wore for her coronation in 1952.

Norman Hartnell’s romantic style was a favourite of high society women. This was a time when young aristocratic women were introduced to society so they could go out and find themselves a husband. Known as debutantes the women were expected to attend a series of formal balls and events during ‘the season’ and of course many dresses were needed for this.

We don’t know who wore this dress, but the elegant style is perfect for a ball. It follows the slimline shape which was the height of fashion in the 1930s. The underbodice of the dress is a gold lamé which delicately shimmers through the fine lace overlaid on top.

More recently a vintage Norman Hartnell dress was worn by Princess Beatrice for her wedding in 2020. The dress was borrowed from the Queen and was originally worn by her in 1962.


Silk, with metallic embroidery
Kindly on loan from Shahid Hussain and Amreen Hussain

The Sherwani is a smart jacket style coat worn by South Asian men. It evolved in the 1800s as a formal garment worn by the Moghul nobility of northern India.

Originally the Sherwani was a loose-fitting garment with a large voluminous skirt. The more structured style, seen here, developed in the 1800s during the British colonial rule of India. The fitted shape was influenced by the tailored frock coats worn by the British officials living and working in India at the time.

By the end of British rule in India (1947) the Sherwani had become a symbol of ethnic pride for many South Asians. It remains a popular garment today and is often worn by a groom on his wedding day.

Shahid Hussain wore this sherwani when he married Amreen Hussain, in Leeds in 2012. The white, red and gold embroidery complimented the bridal dress perfectly.


1817 – 1820

In the 1800s attending a ball was an essential part of a young person’s introduction into society. It was a chance to dance and potentially meet a suitable partner for marriage.

This silk gauze gown was made in 1817-1820 in the ‘Regency Era’ (1811-1820), when classical Greek and Roman ideals influenced dresses. It was believed that dresses should reveal the beauty of the body, so the slightly transparent gown would have been worn with only a light silk underdress. The waistline is high and the hem is padded to help give the skirt structure and width at the bottom. The overall effect is one of simplicity, and the yellow would have been eye-catching in a candlelit venue.

Although simple in style the construction of the dress is complicated. A very skilful dressmaker made this dress. It is all sewn by hand, as the sewing machine had not yet been invented. The detailing on the bodice and sleeves is all edged with piping which would have taken a very long time to complete.

Ball Dress

About 1855
Cotton with silk

Ball dresses are the most elaborate style of eveningwear. This 1855 ball gown shows the ideal feminine shape of the mid 1800s, in which a slim waist was emphasised by a tight corset and extremely full skirt.

The dress would have been worn over multiple petticoats to create the desired shape. It is made from a thin white silk and overlayer of lightweight, translucent cotton gauze called tarlatan which is perfect for dancing in and would have stopped the wearer feeling overwhelmingly hot when in a warm, busy ballroom.

In the 1800s there were strict rules about the styles of clothing that could be worn at different times in the day. The low neckline and off the shoulder style of this dress was only ever appropriate for eveningwear. It would have been scandalous for a woman to show so much skin in the daytime.

The dress was probably worn by a younger woman. Older women were not expected to wear such elaborate dresses as their role at a ball was to act as chaperones for the younger unmarried women – they were not there to dance.

Read our blog by exhibition volunteer Emily Yates on silhouettes and shapewear to find out more.

Cocktail Dress

Victor Stiebel (1907 – 1976)
About 1960

The ‘Cocktail dress’ emerged in the 1920s when early evening cocktail parties first became popular. By the 1950s hosting a such as party was seen as an essential part of home entertaining. A full-length evening dress was too formal for such events, so a shorter style ‘cocktail dress’ was worn instead.

This dress shows the fashionable hourglass shape which was seen throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The bodice is very fitted, and layers of net give the skirt it’s shape. The fullness around the hips and bow on the skirt are designed to draw your eye to the nipped in, narrow waist.

This dress was designed by Victor Stiebel who was a famous London fashion designer during the 1940s to 1960s. Born in South Africa he came to London originally to train as an architect but ended up as a designer of high-end luxury fashions. One of his most famous customers was Princess Margaret (sister of the Queen). Stiebel designed her going away outfit for her wedding in 1960.


Silk with glass beads

This jacket dates from the late 1920s, an era famous for dancing, music and going out in the evening. This was also a time when fashion was fascinated by the ‘exotic’ and looked to the Far East for inspiration. 

For centuries the West has been attracted to East Asian design. Trade with Asia saw textiles and garments brought back to Europe. The designs were highly valued and seen as different, exciting and ‘exotic’. Western makers in turn copied these designs to create their own take on the ‘exotic’ style. 

The beadwork on this evening jacket is a reinterpretation of Japanese embroidery. The design incorporates crane birds and lotus flowers. In Japanese culture these motifs have meaning, with the crane symbolising longevity, good luck and eternal youth and the lotus flower representing purity.  On the jacket they are used simply for their beauty and with little understanding about their cultural importance. 

Hip Hop Outfit

Jacket, T-shirt and accessories
1990s – early 2000s
Kindly on loan from King Monk Studios/Hip Hop Historian Society

Today the influence of Hip Hop and ‘streetwear’ is seen throughout fashion. However, when Hip Hop first emerged on the streets of New York City, USA in the late 1970s and early 1980s its distinct style was often at odds with conventional fashion. 

This outfit was worn to dedicated Hip Hop nights, in Leeds, in the 1990s. At this time many mainstream nightclubs still had a ‘smart casual’ dress code, which meant men were required to wear a shirt, trouser and trainers were definitely not allowed. This denim jacket and t-shirt would have been seen as too casual even on a night out in Leeds.  

The jacket was bought second hand, by the Leeds based singer song writer and artist LSK, who then hand-painted the graffiti design on the back. It is worn with a t-shirt featuring the hip hop group ‘The Pharcyde’ and the accessories include a chain featuring the original Air Jordan sneaker.  The outfit belongs to King Monk, a founding member of the Hip Hop Historian Society. 

Get close to the detail

See each of the garments up close and explore the finer details that have gone into creating each piece.