Essay: Encounters with the Historic

Manchester City Galleries’ dress collection

by Miles Lambert .

Post-war society sought to recover from trauma and dislocation. However, nearly a million British men had been killed and many young women were destined to remain single, propelling them to independence.

There has been a public costume collection in Manchester for nearly a hundred years. The first items of dress came to the corporation in 1922 as part of a vast collection of ‘bygones’ assembled by the wealthy collector, Mary Greg, wife of Thomas Greg, the heir to a textile-manufacturing firm. Included amongst over 850 items were 40 dresses and many accessories and textiles, and these formed the foundation for future collecting policies and priorities in Manchester. Active collecting during the later thirties and, oddly, during the Second World War, meant that by 1945 the Manchester Guardian could declare the collection: ‘the most important public collection of the sort outside London’ [1] (Manchester Guardian,
 4 October 1945).

Indeed, 75 dresses were acquired in 1940 alone, perhaps representing a rush to deposit treasured heirlooms into safe hands, and one of these costumes has been selected for the exhibition as a fine representation of evening wear in the Edwardian, pre-First World War period [2]. Interestingly, this dress was donated by Mrs Alice Laycock of Scarborough, who chose Manchester as her nearest costume collection.

Manchester’s costume collection became truly significant in 1947 with the successful purchase of a large private collection amassed by Drs. Cecil Willett and Phillis Cunnington. After a public appeal to raise £7,000, over 3,000 pieces were acquired, largely dating from 1760 to 1920, including a remarkable library and archive. The management of such a large donation propelled the early curators into formulating costume methodologies to catalogue, store and document the collection and these became instrumental internationally. Women’s dress from 1800 to 1914 comprised the most important element of the collection, and for this section of the exhibition, a dramatic example of couture by Gaston Worth has been selected to illustrate the intricacies of Edwardian daywear for the wealthy woman. [3]

The Cunningtons were both from a medical background and described their analysis of fashion history as a ‘diagnosis’ based on the shaping and reshaping of the body. [4] They also looked to their clothes collection as a ‘typical’ selection, illustrative of mass psychology and not of individual whim or taste. Because of this, they deliberately removed the provenance from any of the pieces they were given or bought. This is now severely limiting both for research purposes and in exhibition interpretation.

However, occasionally details of the wearer have managed to survive with the garment, as with the Gaston Worth dress. Here a paper label from the House records the client (Mme Claude Watney), the Atelier (Bolio[?]) and the model number (70378). Ada Annie Nunn married Claude Watney, the heir to a brewery business, her second husband, in 1895. They were early motorcar enthusiasts and a photograph of Ada by Lafayette was published in The Car Illustrated in June 1902 (Image 1).

Gaston Worth (1856-1926) was one of the two sons of the celebrated Charles Frederick Worth, seen as fashion’s first couturier. With his brother Jean Philippe (1853-1924), Gaston continued the management of House of Worth after Charles Frederick’s death in 1895.

Edwardian fashion can be seen as the culmination of decades of increasing stylisation and elaboration during the later Victorian period. Social conventions relating to the wearing of dress had ossified, becoming deeply complicated, either for occasions such as afternoon visiting, dinner wear, evening wear, and formal ball/opera dress; or for rites of passage such as mourning or marriage. Social restrictions were mirrored in the constrictions of dress, most physically in corsetry. Manufactured corsets became ever more complex and intricate, a hidden armour re-forming the female shape and reinventing the silhouette.

Manchester has an excellent collection of over 120 pairs of stays and corsets, dating from the early 17th century onwards. Of these, 16 date to 1900-14 but only two from 1920-30.
As there were no particularly striking examples for exhibition we have borrowed two pieces from the comprehensive Symington Collection, Leicestershire County Council Museum Service.

The superbly statuesque Jenyns’ corset, patented in Australia in 1911, is described in its promotional booklet as ‘the reducing and supporting’ corset, with elaborate, pseudo-medical instructions for ‘application’ including a rather bizarre image of a woman strapping on her corset in ‘the recumbent position’.

The figure is moulded ‘into fashionable lines’ by the upper corset and by a novel hip-cinching belt [5] (Image 2). Mrs E R Jenyns who patented this design was from Brisbane and she described herself as a ‘Ladies Surgical Instrument Maker’. This corset was relatively expensive, retailing for 19 shillings and 6 pence and aimed at the fashionable market. [6] A skilled self-publicist, Mrs Jenyns assured women that wearing her corset would not injure health in spite of tight lacing and strapping. Visually, it seems clear to the modern viewer that a more restrictive and retraining garment could scarcely be imagined.

Both the dresses chosen for the exhibition from the pre-1914 period exhibit the prevalent exuberance encouraged by fashion, for both day and evening wear. As Oscar Wilde’s character Lord Illingsworth declared in A Woman of No Importance in 1893 'Moderation is a fatal thing, Lady Hunstanton. Nothing succeeds like excess.' [7]

Indeed, the dramatic dress labelled ‘G Worth’ shows not only complex construction and layering, but also allusions to masculine costume and 18th century revival styles as seen in the mock waistcoat fronts, the ‘tailored tailcoat’ and the sleeve ruffles. This type of historicism runs as a leit motif through the work of House of Worth in this period as shown in the surviving photographic archives at the V&A and the Museum of Costume, Bath. [8] Although the exact model has so far eluded discovery, there are a number of outfits with similar features. It requires considerable imagination for us now to imagine this highly elaborate and aristocratic visiting costume as practical daywear.

The other outfit from our collection is more typical of Edwardian evening wear, with a bottle green silk satin under-dress, entirely covered by a black net overdress, heavily embroidered with gold thread and black beading. It is unlabelled, and almost certainly the product of a high-end dressmaker.

Both the outfits also exemplify the use of labour-intensive construction, lavishly costly silks, contrasting colours and embroidered trim. The Gallery of Costume’s collection currently includes 270 dresses dating from 1900 to 1914, some of them equally elaborate. It must be acknowledged, however, that in some aspects, the overloaded elaboration of dress in the high Edwardian period (1905-10) was already softening and simplifying in the immediate pre-1914 period, and thus cannot be laid solely at the door of war. However it was a process vastly intensified during the First World War as social life itself simplified and clothing – for women as much as for men – needed to be more functional and practical. It became essentially unpatriotic to maintain the intricacies of frequent changes of clothes or dressing for dinner, or to wear conspicuously expensive clothing.

If the expectations on many women magnified with the war effort, so, too, their opportunities expanded. With fewer men in the workforce, women were called upon to work in transport and in factories, and volunteered for auxiliary roles in the military services. Manchester has a number of these auxiliary uniforms, all of which show clear masculine influence through their tailoring and design, especially in the jackets. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) uniform that has been selected dates from 1918 and was worn by Sybil Aspinall who joined the WRNS in October 1918 and served for a year, finishing as a deputy principal. [9] This is another example of a costume collected by the Cunningtons where we have been able to discover details of the wearer, this time because her name was inscribed on an inner label. Other women’s uniforms represented in the collection include a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps uniform from 1917, a Land Army uniform also from 1917 and a Red Cross Society uniform.

Post-war society sought to recover from trauma and dislocation. However, nearly a million British men had been killed and many young women were destined to remain single, propelling them to independence. Pre-war norms were only partially re-established as working women often refused to submit to previous restrictions, for instance, of live-in household service. In its various incarnations, the Female Suffrage Movement had fought a long campaign up until 1914. Female suffrage became law in 1918 for property owners over 30, encountering little of the weight of pre-war opposition.

After the war, opportunities for relatively ‘genteel’ work in telecommunications and retail, and in the teaching and nursing professions, grew for women throughout the 1920s. In leisure, women of means could participate in a range of sports or they could travel and holiday alone; they could go to fashionable bars and dance halls, where they, like men, could smoke cigarettes and drink cocktails. Young women, in particular, were encouraged by fashion magazines to wear make-up and to sport increasingly short hairstyles. Unsurprisingly, fashion also transformed.

By the middle twenties, the boyish female silhouette had triumphed. Whether for day or evening events, dresses were cut in simple shapes without emphasis on the natural waist and deliberately masking the bust. Hemlines shortened throughout the early twenties until they reached the knee in 1926. Decoration could be either bold, unfussy and ‘art deco’, or flat and painterly, using the tubular shape as a canvas. Such shapes visually represented a new freedom, liberation from the restrictions of Edwardian social restraint. They also heralded the arrival of a new mass consumerism: the simplicity of women’s fashions made them far cheaper than the pre-War outfits and ensured that ready-made, ‘off-the-peg’ clothing was easily available.

Both the twenties dresses in the exhibition have similar uncomplicated shaping contrasting dramatically with the pre-war fashion. The orange silk evening dress is fully beaded and a typical ‘flapper’ dance dress, decorated to be seen in movement. Its contemporary design incorporates stylised hieroglyphics and is inspired by the greatest historical discovery of the twenties, the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923. [10]

The day dress in boldly striped green/cream Macclesfield silk strikes the contemporary viewer as modern and unpretentious, eminently wearable today, suitable for a host of summer activities. [11] This dress belonged to Miss Finch-Dawson from Penrith, Cumbria and was first worn by her to attend the Hendon Air Show in 1927.

The 1928 corset also differs dramatically from its Edwardian counterpart. The lightly boned corselette incorporates elastic side panels to provide some support for a figure used to
more considerable corsetry, whilst combining as a garment with crepe de chine cami-knickers. Far more underwear than armour, it suggests emancipation from the worst of Edwardian restrain and confinement in fashion. Although it is simplistic to suggest that women of the later twenties had been freed from all fashionable fetters – after all, the required silhouette was gamine, boyish and slim, with flattened bust and narrow hips
– even so, compared to the restrictions of the immediate post- war period, they had indeed secured a certain liberty.

Footnotes:

  • 1 Jane Webb The Colourful Life of Clothes: telling tales from the dress archives, Introduction (manuscript copy: publication by Bloomsbury in 2018)
  • 2 Collection Manchester City Galleries 1940.456
  • 3 Collection Manchester City Galleries 1947.4254
  • 4 Jane Webb op cit
  • 5 ‘The Jenyns’ Patent Reducing and Supporting Corset’, c.1912: Symington Collection, D602
  • 6 Catalogue notes by Christopher Page: Symington Collection
  • 7 The works of Oscar Wilde, Galley Press, Leicester, 1987, Act 3, p. 449
  • 8 House of Worth photographic archives: see Amy de la Haye & Valerie D Mendes: The House of Worth, V&A Publishing, 2014
  • 9 Collection Manchester City Galleries 1947.2535
  • 10 Collection Manchester City Galleries 1956.323
  • 11 Collection Manchester City Galleries 1968.187