Saturday, 9 July 2011

'Looking Over My Shoulder': The Cunningtons (Costume Historians)

As there is so much more to say about our dear friends the Cunningtons, I thought that I would continue the subject on to this next post, and see what else there is to find out about them.

And, as if by magic, I recently stumbled across a wonderful British Pathe Film narrated by the man himself (C.W. Cunnington), in the 1930s. 'A Century of Dress from the Famous Collection of Doctor C.W. Cunnington':

It is just 1 minute and 44 seconds long, and takes us rapidly through women's changes in nineteenth century fashion via his costume collection... What a gem! To be able to hear his voice (very BBC British, of course) is a delight. He describes each outfit shown, and peppers in some details of the context in which they were worn.

The end sentence, as he nears present day (1930s), really caught my imagination:
"You see how a woman clung as long as she could to the idea of elegance? Nowadays we prefer comfort; can't we have both?"

Now he was saying this in the 1930s (very pretty and elegant decade, to my mind). I can imagine poor Doctor C feeling utterly aghast at our modes of ' fashion' these days- jeans and a jumper!!??  I do wonder sometimes if that is why more and more people now are looking backwards to fashions of long ago, and enjoy their weekends of re-enacting, as our clothes are so boring and not very elegant or inspiring at times.

But, I digress, so  on to the point of the post- C.W. Cunnington's autobiography:
Looking Over My Shoulder (Faber & Faber 1961).

Firstly, the title. I did wonder about this, and fairly early on in the book, C.W. explains his love of history as 'looking over my shoulder' at times past. I shan't discuss his complete life story, interesting as it is, because I really want to get to the nitty gritty- his collection of costume, costume artefacts and documentation.

Historical dress is first mentioned when he visits the 'Nordiska Museet' at Stockholm on a holiday with Phillis in 1937 (seven years after the new 'hobby' of collecting costume was begun). Here he notes that the museum "provides a catalogue of the costumes in three languages. No English museum provides one even in English."

Nordiska Museet, Stockholm
I was surprised, and disappointed to learn that the museum which Cunnington had taken the infamous silk dress (see my previous post) to in 1930, was the Victoria & Albert Museum. Looking for more information about the article, he was told that it was "Victorian", but that was all the information that could be given about it.

Courtyard View of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Interestingly, on the V&A's website, under the heading of their 'Textiles and Fashion' department, it reads-  

"The V&A has collected both textiles and dress since its earliest days. For many years garments were only acquired if they were made of significant textiles, as fashion had a low status within the decorative arts."

They were indeed slow in getting their act together in the study of all aspects of costume, if one of the largest museums in the England (established partly to house arefacts from the 1851 Exhibition) hadn't recognised it early enough, by its own later admission.

So off the Cunningtons went; collecting, researching and documenting everything to do with English costume that they could find. Whereas the V&A were only interested at that time with outstanding or unusual textiles, this couple were fascinated with what common women wore in the past, and the 'psychology' of dress and sexual attraction (Freud undoubtedly assisted in this view with his contemporary theories, which was garnering much discussion at the time).

Through advertising in 'The Times' for people to send in Victorian photographs, they managed to obtain 15,000 such examples of everyday clothing!! It was through exercises such as these that they began to see the chasm between the Fashion Journals of the day, and what was actually worn. (A bit like future historians seeing the fashions of our high-end catwalks, and presuming that we all wore those clothes!!)
Duchess of Leinster - Late 1880s
As their collection accumulated, it began to be put to a worthy use - exhibitions of fashion history benefited charities and local communities. And, by 1933, C.W. Cunnington was back at The V&A, but this time to give a lecture himself on 'English Women's Dress in the Nineteenth Century.' By this time their efforts had been detailed in the national press, and more contributions of clothing were offered by the public to add to their all ready large collection (now housed in 2 sheds in their garden). The Cunningtons were becoming known for their scholarly efforts, and even showed Queen Mary (consort to King George V) around an exhibition on one occasion.

Queen Mary

Although we would think nothing of a couple collecting antique under-things today, in the 1930s it seems that some people considered this a little odd, to say the least, and Cunnington had to put up with Victorian comments from some quarters, about amassing ladies' 'unmentionables'.

In 1935, under the suggestion and encouragement of Reverend, C.B. Mortlock, a keen championer of the couples' work, Cunnington completed his first book- Feminine Attitudes in the Nineteenth Century (William Heinemann).  After this followed Englishwomen's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century (Faber & Faber, 1937), partly illustrated by his wife Phillis.

That same year he met and became great friends with James Laver (I feel another exploration of a fashion history contributor coming on...), who was to go on to receive a Neiman Marcus Fashion Award for his work in fashion history, in 1962.  He and Laver met at Alexandra Palace, when Cunnington had a talk on 'Hats through the Ages' televised; and they were to produce another programme together concerning dresses from the collection the following month. These programmes were part of 'Clothes Line' - the first television broadcast concerning the history of fashion in 6 parts. The very last programme of the series became infamous for a national scandal - one of the actresses modelling the clothes wore a backless dress, and was lighted in such a way as to appear naked. Viewers were outraged, and the BBC received many a complaint!!

Cunnington's third book, Feminine Figleaves (Faber & Faber, 1938) was not well received by the majority of females, who were displeased at his attitudes towards women's thought processes and his general criticisms.

Meanwhile the interest surrounding their 'hobby' continued to grow apace, and in 1938 they met the head of US 'Vogue', and artists and film production employees continued to visit and make notes regarding the 'correct' use of costume.

From 1937 onwards, the Cunningtons began to dream of a National Museum of Costume; to house their collection and continue the work that they had started. This subject was even discussed in The House of Commons, but sadly the idea was rejected, after the Minister of Education decided that there was no suitable venue available. Two years later the Second World War broke out, and the Cunningtons had other, weightier problems to occupy their minds.

But, by 1941, Cunnington had had another book published, Why Women Wear Clothes  (Faber & Faber). At the end of the war, and after much hard work during it (both worked long and strenuous days as medical doctors), C.W. and Phillis decided to retire to the island of Mersea in Essex. They sold their medical practice, and looked once again at disposing of their costume collection. Luckily, in 1945, it was bought by the Director of The Art Gallery and Museums of Manchester, and a beautiful 18th century house, 'Platt Hall' was to be its new home, thus creating The Gallery of English Costume. It was then opened to the public in 1947. Money to fund the purchase came from many sources, including Queen Mary herself, a long time follower of the couples' work. Her majesty continued to send photographs of Royal family members to the Cunningtons over the years, to add to their paper collection.

Wool Petticoat (1860/70) from the original Cunnington Collection, now part of Manchester City Galleries (Platt Hall)

Although the plan was to retire, and enjoy the quiet and leisurely pace of life in his late 60s, C.W. found that his finances did not stretch quite as far as he had hoped, and writing, lecturing and broadcasting on the subject of costume once again became part of everyday life. In 1948 he produced both The Perfect Lady (Max Parrish & Co), and The Art of English Costume (Collins). Two years later in 1948, he published his anthology, entitled Women. Yet it was his book detailing the History of Underclothes that proved to be the most successful by far. It had been begun by James Laver, who had asked Cunnington to continue it for him, which he happily did, getting it published by Michael Joseph in 1951. Phillis was to join him in writing this one, and all subsequent books. The following year saw English Women's Clothing in the Present Century (Faber & Faber).

Over the next  couple of years, Faber & Faber published by them a series of  'Handbooks' - Handbook of Mediaeval Costume (1952), Handbook of English Costume in the Sixteenth Century (1954), and Handbook of English Costume in the Seventeenth Century (1955). In 1959 the last of the series, Handbook of English Costume in the Nineteenth Century was completed, which included men's fashions for the first time.

1882 dress part of the original Cunnington collection, now at the Manchester City Galleries (Platt Hall)

In 1960 they wrote a Picture History of English Costume (Vista Books), and C.W. Cunnington's last book on costume was the Dictionary of English Costume (A. & C. Black), which was reformed and revised into The Dictionary of Fashion History with Valerie Cumming in 2010. In his autobiography Cunnington writes of further books that he thought needed to be written, including one which Phillis was to undertake after his death, which was published in 1967 (A. & C. Black) English Occupational Costume.

In fact, the last couple of pages of Looking Over My Shoulder are spent detailing all the work that he or future historians have yet to do, or those which he might have had the time to investigate further. This last paragraph or so sums up his last thoughts on fashion, and I am inclined to agree with him:

"From the seclusion of our little island we still get glimpses of fashionable dress.  They seem to suit the taste and aspirations of today, but being more familiar with the costumes of former times I cannot help thinking that the ones now displayed are rather amateurish; some, no doubt, are in fact very expensive, but they look cheap."  

Platt Hall, Manchester City Galleries

I will certainly be returning to the Cunningtons in the near future. I plan to look at C.W.'s legacy and efficacy in the field of fashion history, Phillis' own contributions to the field, and how contemporary fashion historians view them and their bequests; not only their writings (some of which of course now appear inaccurate due to later researches), but also the sheer depth and breadth of their truly priceless collection.

with love,