Textiles and Costume in Manchester

This past weekend I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Manchester, with plenty of time to check out some of the city’s excellent museums – many of which hold unique collections of dress and textiles.  In the 19th century, Manchester was a world center for textile production and design, and the legacy of this history is very much present in the city’s museums and cultural institutions.

My primary reason for visiting was to attend the Textile Society’s Manchester Fair, as a sales assistant to Meg Andrews. Meg is a London based antique textiles dealer specialising in rare and unusual European and East Asian textiles and costume, whom I regularly assist with photography and web maintenance.  The fair was a frenetic assembly of textile enthusiasts and collectors, and there were many items to covet amongst its vendors, as well as booths set up to provide information on local museums, guilds and schools.

Prior to the fair, I set out to visit The People’s History Museum, Manchester Art Gallery, Whitworth Museum, and the Platt Hall Gallery of Costume.  This week I will focus on the first three, and post a detailed journey through Platt Hall next week.

The Manchester People's History Museum, Photo by Kippa Matthews

The Manchester People’s History Museum, is “a march through time following Britain’s struggle for democracy over two centuries.”  The collection which was founded by the Trade Union Labour and Co-operative History Society, consists of satirical prints, political posters and leaflets, artefacts relating to the lives of working class people, and the world’s largest collection of political and trade union banners.

The chronological and thematic exhibits tell the stories of trade unionists, suffragettes, and trace the development of social reform throughout the UK.  All of these histories are presented in immersive interactive galleries, with clear labelling, multimedia exhibits and engaging hands-on activities for adults and children.  Many articles of working class dress are displayed, which are a rather rare treat, as museums more frequently collect clothing worn and preserved by the upper echelons of society. The museum houses a state of the art textile conservation laboratory, built into the gallery so that the work of conservators can be observed and better understood by museum visitors. There’s even a digital microscope station where you can see a textile curator’s most nefarious enemies – insects and their larvae!

The textile conservation studio with no one working because it's Saturday of course!

In addition to the permanent collection, the People’s History Museum is currently holding a temporary exhibit entitled Death and the Working Class.  While you might not imagine this to be material for a cheerful Saturday afternoon, it was an informative and sensitive look at the rituals and artefacts of death among working class people in the 19th century.  The exhibit featured mourning dress and jewellery, as well as photographs, artworks and printed material that illustrate the importance of a respectable funeral and burial amongst the poorest citizens of Victorian Britain.  A curious highlight of the exhibit for me was the bakelite coffin manufactured in Manchester in 1938.  At the time it was the largest plastic molded object ever produced, and it was marketed as an hygienic and durable alternative to wooden caskets.

I left the People’s History Museum invigorated and inspired and thankful that the struggles of the past have left us with an improved quality of life, and a myriad of fascinating artifacts. My next stop was the Manchester Art Gallery, to check out Grayson Perry: Visual Dialogues. Grayson Perry is an artist well-known for producing work by means of traditional hand skills that intermingle contemporary, historic and personal references.  For Visual Dialogues,  two of his recently acquired artworks, Jane Austen in E17, and Print for a Politician are installed alongside a selection of objects from the museum’s collections selected by artist Jim Medway, and the Creative Consultants, young people aged 15-18.  Among the selected objects are costume items including a 1970s punk leather jacket and a Regency period cotton printed dress.

Punk Jacket displayed in Visual Dialogues, 1979-1980, Leeds

Film still from the Creative Consultants Visual Dialogues film short

The Creative Consultants group also produced a short film that follows two young ladies dressed in replica 1820s costume around contemporary Manchester, perplexed by 21st century phenomena such as a take-away coffee cup.  After finding porcelain teacups in which to pour their coffee, they window shop and are tempted by the bargain prices and stylish footwear at discount department store Primark. (Although I do not celebrate Primark’s brand of fast fashion and questionable produced goods, it seemed an appropriate choice in the film to illustrate the eccentricities of our contemporary consumer culture.) The work of the Creative Consultants group engages with the themes of Perry’s work, making it more accessible to museum-goers, and also illustrates how museum collections function as sources of inspiration for both established and emergent artists.

Detail of Grayson Perry's Jane Austen in E17

Next up, I visited the Whitworth Gallery, which boasts a substantial collection of flat textiles from the 3rd century AD to the present day.  The collection has been open to the public since the museum was founded in 1890, and was originally established as a resource for Manchester’s textile design and manufacturing industries.

Revival styles textile display at the Whitworth Gallery

Thematic displays of textiles from around the globe make up a series of changing displays in the gallery’s entrance hall.  The exhibits include replica and handling collections for young people, as well as computer terminals where visitors can search the collections, which you can also do online.

Before heading to Platt Hall, I took a small break from museum-going to check out a local Oxfam charity shop.  I find it behooves me to familiarise myself with all of the second hand shops in the world.  In this case, the visit proved rewarding, as a brief conversation with the shop manager revealed that they had been donated some “old suits,” that they were unsure of what to do with, or what they might be worth. I put on my costume historian glasses (literally) and agreed to take a look.  Indeed they were “old suits,” an 1890s ladies walking suit, and a linen day dress of around 1915, in pristine condition! Although I didn’t buy the pieces, and they were not really of museum quality, I suggested she put them in the window of the shop to attract attention, and surmised that with the textile fair in town, they just might find a new home before the week was through.

1890s wool walking bodice for sale at Oxfam

Be sure to visit next week for a close-up look at Platt Hall, one of the UK’s oldest and best-known collections of historic costume.

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  • jen thunder March 10, 2011 11.57 pm

    Just wondering real quick if it’s the museum’s label copy that identifies the punk jacket as 1970’s?
    It might seem insignificant, (and I do not want to nitpick!),
    but I would argue this jacket is actually 1980’s and associated with UK82/Anarcho/DBeat- specifically 1980’s aesthetics. Hope there is no offense taken, but UK punk aesthetics in the 1970’s were very different and created very different looks.
    These are subcultural forms I personally identify with, and ideology that resonates with me, so that is my motivation for mentioning this tiny detail.

    Thank you, and great insights on Manchester museums!

  • Jenna March 11, 2011 03.23 am

    Hello Jen, and thanks for your question. Have had a double check of the jacket in the museum’s search the collections online, and it seems it is on the cusp, being dated 1979-1980. In the gallery the jacket is displayed without its date alongside it, and the “map” of objects is located in another room so that visitors may view the pieces as an associative installation. Indeed, it is closer to being an 80s jacket, and I do thank you for pointing out the distinction. I am going to change the label on my photo to reflect the museum catalog data. Thanks again and glad you enjoyed the article.


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