Following on from last week’s quick tour through some of Manchester’s fine museums and galleries, I dedicate this week’s post to a more in-depth visit to The Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall, one of Britain’s largest and oldest museum collections of historic and contemporary dress. Long before my visit last weekend I was familiar with Platt Hall, thanks to a series of books on historic dress published by the museum in 1951. These nifty little pamphlets on different periods of costume history may seem dated or just basic to us today, but they are documents of early approaches to the study and curation of dress, and are definitely worth having in you library. You can usually find a few copies on Amazon or eBay, that won’t cost you too much.
What is remarkable about these books to our eyes is that– gasp – the historic costumes are photographed on real people not mannequins. Yes, it’s true.
Women of the mid 20th century were dressed and posed in actual garments from the 17th to 19th centuries as illustrations of how the clothes were worn in the past. Although it is pretty astonishing to think of museum artifacts being worn under any circumstances, it seems that the garments featured survived the photo shoot, as many of them are still on display unharmed in the galleries 60 years later.
In addition to the photo illustrations, the books provide a detailed history of the Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall. This is fortunate, since the museum’s website and currently distributed literature do not describe the museum’s rather fascinating origins. In brief: Platt Hall, an 18th century Georgian mansion formerly inhabited by a textile merchant and his family, opened as a costume history gallery in 1947. It was the first museum dedicated solely to the history of dress in Britain. A small collection of dress was already held by the city of Manchester prior to the 1940s, but the acquisition of the private costume collection of Dr. C Willett Cunnington inspired the Manchester Art Galleries to devote the whole of Platt Hall to costume. Dr. Cunnington is a controversial though pivotal figure in the study of dress history. He and his wife were avid collectors of historic costume, photographs and fashion periodicals. Their collecting was guided not only by a love of fashion but also by the discipline of mass psychology. According to Cunnington, and the principles of mass psychology, dress evolves as a function of the general psychological climate of a population. Cunnington used examples from his collection, as well as ideas from Freudian psychology to postulate that feminine dress was entirely a function of psycho-sexual desire and impulses. Although Cunnington’s ideas are today seen as outdated and largely misogynistic, he is recognised and lauded for being a pioneer in the raising the statues of dress history and for having preserved a valuable collection of historic English costume. You can get an idea of Cunnington’s opinions, by viewing this newsreel, at the British Pathé archive site.
Now, back to Platt Hall today!
Following an extensive renovation and modernisation project, Platt Hall’s galleries are installed with a chronological display of costume and accessories, as well as special exhibition galleries, an education centre and bookshop. Unusually, the chronology seems to guide you backwards through time. The first display, representing the present moment focuses on collaborations between chain retailers, celebrities and runway fashion designers, with examples such as Sonia Rykiel for H&M and Kate Moss for Topshop.
Counting backwards across the late twentieth century, glass cases populated by retail style mannequins model dresses by eminent designers. There are some predictable choices here, and the make-up and wigs on the mannequins are somewhat jarring, but the exhibits do illustrate the changes and key styles of each decade.
The displays from the first half of the twentieth century contain some more substantial material than the latter, and are displayed on dressmaker’s dummies rather than retail style mannequins, giving the exhibits more serenity and gravitas.
A highlight of the 1940s display for me was a dark purple wool suit with peplum jacket and illusion bolero. Before even reading the label I wondered if I could sketch and fabricate a replica of this dress for myself, thinking it an ideal “fashion curator’s suit.” Then to my pleasant surprise I learned that the suit belonged to Doris Langley Moore, a pioneering dress historian and fashion writer – one of my heroes! She is also known for de-bunking many of Cunnington’s theories, and was the star of the first colour television program entitled What We Wore, broadcast in 1957.
The upper floors are dedicated to costume from the 17th-19th centuries, with exquisite examples of Regency dress, Indian export cottons, English embroideries, corsets and stays, shawls, fans and other accessories. The galleries are rather small and intimate, and all the displays are behind glass, but there is no lack of things to see and be inspired by!
The dresses are mounted in front of Cunnington’s photographs of modern women wearing the ensembles, with texts from his writings as well as the modern perspective by way of contrast.
The education centre, where a fashion design workshop for young people was in progress during my visit, also houses the Meredith Collection of buttons, acquired by the museum in 2004. Gillian and Alan Meredith collected over 100,000 buttons over a 30 year period and ran an independent button museum until turning the collection over to Platt Hall. Many of the buttons are still displayed on the cards put together by the Merediths. This is a remarkable resource for designers and historians and inspired me to buy more than a few buttons at the textile fair following my visit!
Overall, Platt Hall provides a concise overview of English costume of the past 350 years. The displays are clear, well-lit, neat and informative, and are aimed at introducing costume history to a wide spectrum of possible visitors. The museum’s current temporary exhibitions feature contemporary artists, and prove that the museum is not just an homage to the past, but a laboratory of inspiration.
The current display of Lubaina Hamid’s “Singer Tailor Striker Dandy” and Penelope Batley’s “Light Humour,” are both excellent and engaging examples of how museum collections inform current art practice. Also on display is Susie MacMurray’s “Widow” a gown constructed of leather pierced with over 100,000 adamantine pins, pictured in the first photo above.
Platt Hall, like most costume museums, houses infinitely more material than what is on display, and fortunately, you can view many of these items online search. In addition to garments, you can also search the photographic portrait archive of over 25,000 images from the Cunnington’s collection! So, even if you don’t have a trip to Manchester on the calendar, you may have a taste of this world-class collection, as it is today online, and as it was in its early days, by hunting down copies of the Gallery of English Costume books from 1951.