Stripping back history

IT is a history lecture with a difference - it begins with a woman stripping to her underwear.

Maureen Taylor will whip off her kit down to her shift - that's a basic Elizabethan undergarment, to you and me - before dressing back up. And up. And up. Layer after layer, make-up on top of make-up, for a full 40 minutes, until she is wearing a full 16th century court outfit.

And you thought period talks were dry and dull?

Sheffield's newest festival, the Off The Shelf Highlighting History weekend, is here to prove such stereotyping wrong.

"It's a lot of fun, for me, but hopefully for the audience too," says Maureen, 57, a qualified historian who has been giving the show for six years after she was inspired to make her own Elizabethan costume while working as a volunteer at Hardwick Hall in Chesterfield.

"The fashions and outfits from the period were so amazing and complex, it takes about 40 minutes to go from my shift to full dress so you get an idea of the task women faced every single day. In that time I discuss the period's make-up, male fashion and social habits - which were not always so social."

Oh, and after Maureen's fully clobbered-up, she'll be asking members of the audience to try on something too. It's all right, though - they don't have to get down to their smalls first.

The demonstration is just one of a series of talks and tours being held across Sheffield as part of the extravaganza next month.

Other events include lectures by award-winning historians Amanda Vickery on the Georgians and Michael Wood on the story of England, tours with local experts like Ron Clayton and Rob Hindle, and sessions on the role of Sheffield women during World War Two, and South Yorkshire myths and legends.

Interest is already mounting but why are organisers of an annual literary festival branching out into history?

"This is our 20th anniversary year so it felt like the time was right to try something new," says Lesley Webster, arts officer with Sheffield City Council. "We always carry out audience surveys and the demand for history talks is so overwhelming we thought it would be the perfect subject to have its own mini-festival. That's not to say we won't have others in the future. We think we could sustain weekends on crime or travel or politics - the list is endless really."

And the result, she reckons, is not just an educated city - but a slightly wealthier one too.

"The literary festival brings people from outside Yorkshire here, spending their money, and we're confident this will too. We don't have official estimates but it can't be anything but a good thing," says Lesley.

And that Elizabethan underwear? "Who wouldn't want to see that talk?" she asks.

Who indeed?

The weekend runs Thursday, February 3, to the following Sunday.

A full programme of events and tickets are available at www.offtheshelf.org.uk

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