BEDALES School is preparing to donate its extraordinary collection of historic clothes – some of them nearly 300 years old – to form the core collection of Petersfield Museum. It includes crinolines, ballgowns, hunting coats, hats, mourning wear, swimwear, underwear, debutante gowns – and even an elegant England first XI ladies' hockey dress from the 1890s, complete with lace cuffs. Bedales began amassing historic clothes in the 1940s, before they were seen as valuable collectors' items, and then used them as costumes in school plays. The resulting collection is unique – a living link with the first owners of these clothes centuries ago. "These costumes are too precious and fragile now to be used on stage," said Jenny Dandridge, a former pupil and teacher at Bedales who has been involved with the wardrobe since her own schooldays. "We have been looking for a way to preserve the collection. When we heard that Petersfield Museum was to expand, we offered the historic costumes, and we are delighted that they will become the core collection." Jenny has been working with the historic wardrobe curator at Bedales, Ros Attwood, and volunteer Vanessa Albertini to sort out and list the 'museum- worthy' items, but it's a huge job. "Nine removal lorries were needed to move the wardrobe to its present store," said Jenny. The last time the collection was catalogued, in the 1980s, it took local NADFAS volunteers six years, working every Tuesday afternoon. The work is also painstaking, because many materials are so delicate, and some of the costumes are so old. The oldest pieces are women's dresses from the 1720s; the oldest male costume is a coat and long waistcoat, beautifully hand-embroidered in silk, from the 1770s. English chintz dresses from the Regency and Victorian periods are matched by more modern examples, including an immensely thick and heavy ruched ballgown from the 1950s in the fashionable and expensive material of the time – nylon. The Bedales wardrobe is a window on social history. A deep beige dress from the 1880s is actually a wedding dress (made and worn in Petersfield). White was made fashionable as the colour for weddings by Queen Victoria, and at first it remained an aristocratic fashion – too posh for common folk. From the same period, Bedales also has a half- mourning dress, in pale mauve trimmed with black; this would have been worn after the year-long period of official mourning, when all-black dresses were no longer socially obligatory. People who know Bedales as a school with no uniform will be surprised to see blazers (used for formal occasions until the 1960s) and dance tunics; also a classic Aquascutum rain cloak from the first part of the 20th century. Nowadays, the wardrobe makes new costumes for the many plays that are staged at Bedales every year, but the historic costumes were used on stage regularly from the 1940s to the 1980s in plays and in catwalk shows that were held specifically to display the clothes. The Bedales collection was started by drama teacher Rachel Cary Field. Historic clothes were her hobby; she begged them from friends and also bought them in London auctions at a time when few others were interested. Rachel ran the wardrobe with a team of 'wardrobe girls'. One of them was Jenny Dandridge, who took over after Rachel's death. The Bedales collection of historic costume has been transferred to Petersfield Museum. It will be carefully stored until the museum can find new and larger premises in which to display it. "Everyone at Bedales is delighted that our historic costume collection will have pride of place in the new Petersfield Museum," said Jenny. "The costumes will be stored and displayed in excellent conditions and will be available to far more people than could ever visit them at Bedales. "The collection will be a major cultural asset for Petersfield. Clothes have been given by parents, grandparents and staff at the school, and their friends. Many items were locally made or worn, and they are a living link to Petersfield's past." Sara Sadler, the curator at Petersfield Museum, said: "We are excited to be acquiring the costumes into the museum. It is an interesting and significant collection which we will be able to display and to make available to researchers." Alison Carter, the senior keeper of art and design in the Hampshire County Council museums and archives service, has been advising the school. She said: "Bedales' historic dress collection is a hidden treasure trove of beautiful and extraordinary fabrics and designs, going back to the 18th century, which deserves to be better known. "It bears testament to the generosity of the parents of Bedalians, and the community around Bedales School, who have donated family costumes and accessories for use both for drama productions and, where not suitable for wearing, for study purposes. "Thanks to the time and care given by the wardrobe staff and textile volunteers over the years, a museum-worthy collection has been formed and I look forward to seeing greater access and interpretation enabled through its transfer to Petersfield Museum."