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All dressed up

In the early days of Inveraray Jail prisoners wore their own clothes. So if you turned up without any shoes, well that’s the way you stayed. But the Prison Reform Act of 1839 stated that on arrival convicts should be issued with a set of prison clothes, and from then on prisoners wore a uniform – a moleskin jacket and trousers for men and a blouse, skirt, apron and cap for women. These warm clothes would have been quite a luxury for those locked up inside. The only thing is the prisoners had to make them all themselves!

Original moleskin prisoner uniform

Hanna with an original moleskin prisoner uniform

The materials required for each uniform were described in a book issued to prison staff in 1841. This guide is gold dust to Hanna Nixon, the jail’s resident costume maker. Her mission is to ensure that the outfits worn by the jail’s actors are as close as possible to those worn by real prisoners all those years ago. ‘The book gives me exact details, from the different types of material used to the yards of cloth required for each garment. It’s a fantastic resource,’ she says. In addition, the jail has an original moleskin uniform in its collection and a selection of prisoner photos taken during the 19th century, both of which Hanna uses for reference.

Hanna, who also plays the jail’s Matron, worked in theatre costume design for many years and makes costumes for local museums and BBC dramas. So she knows a thing or two about making historically accurate outfits. For her, the most important thing is the detail. She scours the internet for the right material, correct buttons or precise badge. She likes to make the bonnets and aprons with calico and the skirts with a thick material known as drill – just as they were back in the 1900s. Rather than zips, she uses button and hooks and she’s always on the lookout for clogs (worn by prisoners) and lace-up boots (worn by Matron). For added authenticity, she sews as much as possible by hand.

Unpicked blouse

Hanna unpicks a blouse to create a pattern

Some things can be tricky to track down and Hanna has to be creative. Recently she found herself struggling to source a navy cap for the Warder, but she eventually came up with a solution.  ‘A French Foreign Legion one covered with navy material did the job nicely,’ she says.  Women’s blouses are a bit easier. Convicted female prisoners wore green and white striped blouses while those yet to be convicted wore red and white striped ones. Hanna picks these up on the high street, removes the collars and sews on the embroidered prisoner numbers. ‘I love to rework items that I find in a shop or second hand store. Sometimes it only takes a few tweaks,’ she says. At the moment, she’s fashioning a pair of green velvet curtains picked up at a church sale into a new skirt for Matron.

Female prisoner

Sam, who plays a prisoner, in her costume made by Hanna

Hanna believes that the costumes are a vital part of the visitor experience. ‘They make characters believable and bring them to life,’ she says. ‘It’s also educational. Visitors to the jail are getting a real sense of prison life – right down to the clothes the prisoners wore.’ A well-made costume is important for the actors too. ‘Costumes help you get into character and leave the 21st century behind,’ she explains. ‘When I put on Matron’s coat, boots and bonnet, I become her.’

Prisoners not only had to make their own clothes, they also had to wash and look after them. Outer garments were washed once a month and under garments once a week. If you didn’t look after your clothes properly you would be made to wear a canvas suit decorated with arrows as punishment. You can see an original example of these suits on show in the jail’s exhibition of prison artefacts. These days Hanna’s in charge of laundry – she wants to make sure that all her creations are washed at the right temperature!

So the next time you visit Inveraray Jail take a close look at the costumes worn by the actors and judge for yourself how authentic they are.


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX