Saturday, 2 July 2011

Pioneers of Documenting English Costume: C.W. Cunnington and P. Cunnington

I was first made aware of this fascinating husband and wife team C.W. Cunnington (1878-1961) and P. Cunnington (1887-1974), when I read The History of Underclothes (C.W. Cunnington & P. Cunnington) first published by Michael Joseph 1951), and then shortly afterwards, English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century (C.W. Cunnington, Faber and Faber 1937).  

C.W. Cunnington, 1935

Ever since, I have found myself picking these books up again and again. Yes, they were written many moons ago now, and research has been since updated, leading to many incongruities in their work, but there is still much of value to the historical costumer. Some of the psychological perspectives that they ruminated upon in their work (especially in 'Underclothes'), I find superfluous and at times irritating, but the wealth of photographs, detail, and historical quotes and references dealing in just English costume is a delight. The mass of drawings, fashion plates, and the inclusion of information regarding fashion accessories in the second book is invaluable. These weren't the only ones that they had published- their work starts in Medieval times and continues into to the 20th century.

When I first realised that it was a husband and wife team who had written these books about English fashion history (and there are a fair few, including those written solely by Phillis after C.W.'s death), I immediately thought 'Wow, a man that loves this stuff too, fab!!' And, yes, of course, I started to wonder just how and why these two began all of this work, and resolved to find out a little more about them. 

As luck would have it, a book that I bought a little while later Fabric of Society: A Century of People and their Clothes (Jane Tozer & Sarah Levitt, a Laura Ashley Publication, 1983) filled in a few more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle:

  "In 1930, a middle aged doctor was passing a London antique shop, and spotted a beautiful old silk dress, which he thought might be turned into an evening cloak for his wife...but when they came to examine the dress at home, they could not bring themselves to to cut it up until they at least knew how old it was. So they took it along to a very august museum for advice, and were told that the dress was 'Victorian', perhaps dating from the 1870's. Little other information was forthcoming, and they left disappointed, under the impression that nineteenth century costume was not considered worthy of serious study."

This paragraph sums it up- here were 2 intelligent professionals (both being medical doctors), and lovers of history, who had found a 'challenge', and they set about collecting, researching and writing all they could about English costume history. I for one, am forever grateful!!

Once they had retired, and as their collection had become so substantial, the couple decided to put their costume hoard up for sale. Platt Hall, in Manchester, became its new home, and was now the property of 'The City of Manchester Art Galleries', becoming 'The Gallery of English Costume', in 1947. Included in the sale were 3,500 items, as well as their extensive library of texts and photographs.

While I was reading all about the Cunningtons' story, I noted that C.W. had written an autobiography Looking Over My Shoulder (Faber & Faber, 1961); the last book he was to write, shortly before his death.  I ordered a copy, and have just started to read it. He writes in a wonderful way; self deprecating, honest, light hearted, and humorous. I can imagine that if you met him, he would have a 'twinkle in his eye.' It is also a fascinating look into the life of a medical practitioner in the Edwardian years, with many a suspect mode of patient treatment, and the outbreak of the First World War. I haven't finished the book yet, and I feel that the irrepressible C.W. Cunnington is going to keep my attention for a good while yet (I have just ordered 2 more of his books from Amazon).

Amongst my many questions are what did the 'C' stand for, anyway? His second initial stands for 'Willett', but I can't seem to find what the C is. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know!! Also, who was the brains behind the operation? Apparently the books written by Phillis after his death were very highly regarded, being considered more scholarly than the books written jointly or just by him.  (This maybe because much of the earlier work was dis-credited to some extent, Phillis then decided on a more academic approach).

But there is one fact which the costuming world is sure of- these two pioneered the study of historical clothing as a serious contribution to the Arts; and their rescuing of so many pieces of antique clothing (especially fine examples of very rare underpinnings), are a legacy to which we will be forever grateful. Their joint oeuvre of work laid down the basis for comprehensive research and debate, turning historical costume into an area of academic study at last.

with love,

P.S. The 'C' stands for Cecil! :)