Odds and quads

This striking black costume was used in The Brilliant and the Dark, a cantata for female voices composed for the National Federation of Women's Institutes by Australian composer Malcolm Williamson to a libretto by Ursula Vaughan Williams.

December 2, 2010

Performed by 1,000 volunteers at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969, its panoramic narrative ran from the Middle Ages to the Second World War via characters including embroiderers, plague victims and war workers.

The dress is part of the Women's Institutes archive, held in the Women's Library at London Metropolitan University, the oldest and most extensive collection of women's history in Europe. The library's 500 archives contain more than 8,000 objects and 60,000 books and pamphlets dating back to 1592.

A key resource for a range of research, its central focus is on campaigns for women's suffrage, illustrated here by a scroll awarded to Alice Stewart Ker on her release from Holloway Prison. She had spent three months in solitary confinement for vandalising Harrods as part of the Votes for Women struggle.

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