Friday, 12 March 2010

Dr Cunnington knows best

The Gallery of Costume in Manchester reopens tomorrow after an extensive renovation lasting two years and costing over £1 million.

Full disclosure: I have worked as a volunteer at this museum for several years, so its hard to be impartial about it (although I will try!)

The Gallery of Costume is housed in a beautiful 18th century mansion set in the north eastern corner of Platt Fields park, and the improvements have scrupulously respected its architectural integrity and features whilst introducing a welcome sense of space and light.

I'm not going to go on about the building and estate itself (although those that are interested can find a fascinating history of it in the newly republished Fabric of Society, details below) but the couple whose collecting passion and pioneering research formed the basis of what is now one of the most important collections of dress in Britain.

Dr C. Willett Cunnington and his wife Phillis (also a physician) began collecting Victorian dress in the 1930s, and discovered, after making enquiries about it, that there was little or no academic interest in the subject. However, they persisted in their acquisitions and soon accumulated a sizeable collection - not just of garments but books, catalogues and periodicals, fashion plates and photographs - and their research efforts culminated in a series of co-authored books on costume history and theory that helped legitimise the study of dress as a subject of serious enquiry.

The Cunningtons felt strongly that there should be a national museum in Britain entirely devoted to costume and, as they approached retirement from their practice in medicine in 1945, they put their collection up for sale. Their offer was taken up by the City of Manchester Art Galleries, which decided that the now empty Platt Hall would be a suitable venue for it. The Gallery of Costume was launched.

Dr C. W. was quite the media star already - he had "built up a reputation as a lecturer and broadcaster with a flair for racy anecdote, and a gift for summing up the spirit of an age" (Fabric of Society, p.16). And guess what? He can be found in TinTrunk's favourite film resource, the British Pathé archive!

This 1931 film is narrated by Dr C. W. Cunnington himself, as he gives you a potted history of 19th century fashions, worn by real live models (something that no modern curator would permit!) in an elegant garden setting. You can hear evidence of his humour and practised delivery, no doubt honed over numerous lecture appearances, in this delightful short:


In 1938 Dr C. W. appears before the camera brandishing a "kind of felt" corset of 1780, and relishing the arrival of a print dress "worn over a hundred years ago" that comes bundled up in brown paper.

I wonder if his wife Phillis was one of the women present in that shot. It does seem that she didn't have quite the media exposure that her husband seemed to enjoy, although perhaps it suited her to stay in the background. There's more non-conservation-standard modelling of antique garments too:


This last film, from 1947, must have been shot during the early days of the Gallery of Costume and begins with a fashion show by designer Rosalind Gilbert. The narrator draws parallels with elements of her designs and historical fashions, and the film then cuts to shots of the Cunnington collection, again being modelled by real live human beings. I won't comment on the curious scene of the woman undressing while being spied on by two little girls (don't worry, its perfectly SFW), except to note that those were obviously much more innocent times:


The newly refurbished Gallery of Costume has a fabulous new exhibition on the ground floor covering 20th century fashions - Suffragettes to Supermodels - but if you are visiting, you must venture upstairs to the first floor where Eleanor Thompson has curated an intriguing show of 19th century dress which unpicks Dr C. W.'s theories on women and fashion with a 21st century perspective. Whilst respecting his legacy, it has some illuminating insights into his approach and attitudes to women.

The Gallery of Costume will be open from Wednesday to Saturday every week, 1.30 pm to 4.30 pm.

Gallery of Costume
Platt Hall
M14 5LL

Tel: 44 (0) 161 245 7245

Further reading and exploration

A selection of the museum's photographic collection of over 25,ooo images, can be seen here on flickr.

Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt, Fabric of Society: A Century of People and Their Clothes 1770-1870, recently republished, I will add details as soon as I know them! [This is an excellent book which features numerous items from the Gallery of Costume's collections in a varied selection of essays about all aspects of dress history, from high fashion to workwear].

The reopening of Manchester's Gallery of Costume. BBC Radio 4 interview by Jenni Murray with Moira Stevenson, head of Manchester City Galleries.

Manchester's Gallery of Costume to reopen after two-year, £1.3million revamp.

Preview of Manchester's Gallery of Costume.

Clothes show returns after £1.3m revamp. [The first, and currently only, comment made me laugh, by the way].

Hats off as revamped clothes show opens.


Catwalk Creative Vintage said...

Great to see you at the opening of the costume gallery today. Had a marvellous time, despite the silly man with tiny camera!

The gallery costumes have been displayed to beautifully and it's all been thought out perfectly in such a spectacular setting. I'm looking forward to many more visits.

I'm also loving the book you recommended, 'Fabric of Society' by Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt. A wonderful reference book.

This is a great blog piece Sarah. I'll be posting photos for my own blog later and will place a link to this article if that's ok. :)

TinTrunk said...

I was so pleased to see you there L! And to meet your lovely daughter, who shows signs of becoming a precocious vintage fashionista (she's definitely developing an eye for the good stuff!)

Of course you can link to this article - you're most welcome! I'm really looking forward to reading your report about the museum.