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The Manchester Gallery of Costume is open the last Saturday of every month. End of sentence. Not the last Saturday of every month and every Monday to Thursday, or even the last Saturday of every month and every second Wednesday. No, this is a museum that feels simply opening one day per month is enough to justify its existence and this fact is also my justification for only just having got around to visiting it despite having lived within walking distance of the place for over 6 years. The museum is in Platt Fields Park on the Rusholme / Fallowfield border of Manchester and is about a mile to the south of its sister exhibiter, the Whitworth Art Gallery, along Wilmslow Road. The Curry Mile links the two places and a walk along it is a nice way to 'warm up' for the museum as in-between the many, many curry houses there are numerous jewellers and boutiques whose windows are filled with sari-clad mannequins in displays similar to those in the Gallery of the Costume. This is what I did and, with Shannon Noll and Missy Higgins on my ipod, I set off on a roundabout trip to the gallery this weekend.
Inside the museum, which is housed on the lower two floors of a large house in the park, there are three main display areas. To the left as you go in is a dedicated children's area that is done up very nicely with displays that could appeal to all ages. These include uniforms and outfits worn by many professions with explanations of why we wear what we wear (to be highly visible or well hidden, to keep warm or dry, to be safe or clean). There is also a small dressing up area with various props for children to try on. Further through into the next room is the most modern of all the display rooms with contemporary items from the 1960s up until the 1990s. This room focuses on the clothes of ordinary people from these times and has department store and high street items and a few wall mounted pages torn from magazines - fashion layouts and adverts. The one item that intrigued me most was also wall mounted - a pair of knickers very similar to some Antz Pantz I brought back from Australia. It was the only exhibit I noticed that didn't have any kind of explanation with it and I couldn't help wondering whether it had some perverse connotations to someone - a memento of a night's conquest, perhaps? Hopefully someone at the museum will read this and update the piece accordingly so that next time I'm there I'll be saved from some of the filthy thoughts currently wandering through my mind.
The rest of the museum - some half dozen rooms on the ground floor and first floor - is slightly different because a lot of what is on display would not have been worn by ordinary people of the time, but only by the higher tiers of society. There are some lavish dresses and gowns and some exquisite accessories, all neatly catalogued with descriptions of the fashion at the times. It's like a nice, accessible history lesson - whoever wrote the wall plaques obviously took the time to make the information both interesting and educational. In fact, nice and accessible could be this museum's tag line. It's neither large nor full, but the exhibits it does have are nicely laid out and apart from at the shop and entrance, there is a noticeable absence of museum guards. The result is somewhere you feel you can move around at your own pace and where you don't feel under pressure to tiptoe around or whisper.
In some of the rooms (which start in the 1600s and work their way forward) there are both contemporary and more modern pieces, showing the truly cyclical nature of fashion - for someone who wasn't around in either decade it was hard for me to pick out the genuine 1930s and 1940s pieces from the 1960s and 1970s ones that were inspired by the earlier time. In another example of what goes around coming around, I found a pair of shoes from the 1940s that were very similar to some I bought last year in Newcastle (Australia). In fact, a lot of times in this museum I was reminded of the secrets of the fashion industry as let loose in Imogen Edwards-Jones' 'Fashion Babylon'.
Probably my favourite room was the one on the upper floor devoted solely to buttons. A sheet on the wall as you enter asks 'Who hasn't spent many happy hours as a child going through their mother's button box?' and it's true, this did used to be one of my favourite things to do. The room contains 3 large cabinets of many hundreds of buttons, some I recognise from my youth and some which pre-date me by centuries.
Another thing of note was a display on suits which included one tagged as '1998-1999 worn by the Director of Manchester City Art Galleries'. This suit was by Nicole Farhi. Hmmm, perhaps if you paid your directors a little less you wouldn't have to rely on volunteers and could open more than one day per month? ;-p
I would have spent money in their shop quite happily but they don't have much on offer so I had to settle for a few odds and ends totalling less than £1. So, though there's no entrance fee to the museum, I happily dropped a few coins into their donation box and disturbingly pleased with the loud 'clink clink' this caused since at the very least it meant the racket would alert the two volunteers in the vicinity to the fact that I was being a suitably appreciative member of the public willing to contribute to the upkeep of the gallery.
Now that I've made the effort to go I think this is going to become one of my favourite Manchester galleries because it doesn't pretend to be anything it's not - as it says on the tin it's a gallery of costumes, nothing more, nothing less. Despite the lack of facilities (no restaurant or café, no guided tours, no family arts sessions) I will definitely be taking visitors here. Provided, of course, they come to visit on the last Saturday of the month.