Today we attended a lecture by Pauline at the Walker Art Gallery about the current temporary exhibition she curated, ‘Mrs Tinne’s Wardrobe: A Liverpool Lady’s Clothes 1910-1940‘. The public are able to buy a ticket to hear Pauline give information in addition to the exhibition, she advises that people attend the lecture before seeing the exhibition, so they enter with a very good understanding of who the exhibition is about, the origins of the collection and the historical context. I personally hadn’t seen or read much about the exhibition before hearing the lecture, which enabled me to focus on the exhibits without being distracted by labels or exhibition literature. Having developed more knowledge about the care of costume collections in the past few weeks, I was able to appreciate the quality of the costume on display, the styles and time periods each piece represents and the magnitude of one woman’s collecting habit.
Pauline begins the lecture by informing the audience that she will be showing them some material that they couldn’t exhibit, due to limited space, she also explains that she will inform them about the ‘shopping experience’ in Liverpool between the 2 world wars, as well as the history of the Tinne family and the collection.
The Tinne collection came to the gallery in 1967. The previous curator excavated 60 tea-chests full of costume from Emily Tinne’s house after her death, donated whilst the family were ‘downsizing’ to a smaller property. Due to the volume of material in the building, it took 3 years to clear. It became apparent that this collection is the biggest collection of clothing in the United Kingdom that belongs to 1 person, giving it immediate significance – but additionally, the collection is important due to its’ ‘representation’. Instead of just containing special occasion clothing, this collection included the everyday items also, even multiple versions of the same everyday item. This includes children’s clothes, underwear, swimwear, shoes, hats and more.
Years later staff at the Walker were able to contextualize the collection by gaining access to the Tinne family archive, consisting of 1500 letters written between 1923-51, correspondence between the parents and children during both wars and whilst they were away studying. The letters revealed details about the families attitudes, opinions and beliefs, including intimate information regarding events taking place in their own lives.
Emily was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), West Bengal, East India, in 1886, during the British occupation, to missionary parents from Edinburgh. Emily was consequently brought up by her Aunt from age 4, whilst her parents were living abroad. The audience for the lecture appeared to be primarily local people – they collectively nodded and spoke up in recognition as Pauline recounted Emily’s previous addresses from different times in her life, in various large houses around Liverpool. It was clear to see that the audience for this lecture, but also within the exhibition itself, felt a sense of familiarity with this character and the history portrayed – created due to their connection and sharing of geographical space. Ironically, however, Emily Tinne recounted in one of her letters that she felt as though she had no home – feelings of displacement due to her parents absence. Pauline explains that this could have been a causing factor leading to Emily’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or more specifically, her Obsessive Buying Disorder.
Emily married Philip Frederick Tinne in 1910. Philip was from a Protestant family, who were considerably wealthier than Emily’s middle-class family – the Tinne’s were millionnaires. Like Emily’s parents, the Tinne’s created their wealth through Colonialism, they owned sugar plantations and were also slave owners. Pauline explained to the audience that the museum wanted to be open about the origin of the money used to buy the collection initially. One of the first displays in the exhibition provides contextual information about the family’s history as slave owners – it is clearly an unavoidable and important message, and one the gallery wants to be open about from the offset. The significance of the Tinne costume collection is not diminished as a result, but with the knowledge that the collection was fuelled by slave owners money, a ‘conflicted’ viewing experience is created. I personally was able to appreciate the collection on an aesthetic level, for its’ typological and historical significance, and for the expertise of Pauline and the rest of the staff at Walker Art Gallery in the skilled and professional display methods – however, it was not easy to connect to it on a personal level. The collection exudes wealth, glamour, privilege and, to an extent, greed – preventing me from finding it relatable.
This feeling was further complicated by the profile displays for each of the Tinne’s children. Whilst the photographs, short textual biographies, and personal belongings including costumes were simple yet informative, offering a range of things to engage with on display – giving a significant platform such as this to a privileged group of people felt counterproductive and contradictory. On the other hand, accurately documenting biographies for the owners (or in this case, wearers) of objects in a museum collection, creating a relatable connection to ‘real’ people of the past, and successfully accessibly demonstrating of the individual use of museum objects, is commendable – this exhibition is not limited to a history of fashion, but provides fascinating and rich social history also.
The exhibition also gives ‘voice’ to some of the Tinne’s servants. The family hired servants from 1910 until the war broke out, when people were drafted instead. They had 6 or 7 staff at one time, including butlers, gardeners, nursemaids and a chauffeur. We learnt during the lecture that one of the maids, named Elizabeth (pictured below) had rickets, a condition affecting bone development from a young age, caused by a Vitamin D deficiency . There was also a display of some of the servants ‘work’ outfits. I thought the acknowledgment of the servants and the Tinne’s staff was also commendable, giving a more thorough picture of the family structure, and giving a voice to the working class people involved in this history, or narrative – women I found much more relatable.
Lastly, Pauline’s lecture ended with an account of the ‘shopping experience’ of Liverpool. Unlike today’s shopping experience, in clothings stores of the time a customer did not enter the shop and view clothes on rails – after taking a seat the shop assistants would bring samples to the customer. After having measurements taken the customer would then order the clothes to be delivered to their homes in a box. Emily Tinne bought from many high-end tailors such as this, but also from boutique stores – she also purchased patterns with names that seem comical today, patterns for ‘matrons’, or ‘outsize’, and ‘smart fashions for wider hips’. Beyond the comical value of outdated terms, these patterns are revealing of Emily’s tastes, and telling of her changing body shape and age in correlation to her fashion choices. According to Pauline, the audience have commented that it is refreshing to see plus size clothing on display, challenging contemporary beauty standards. Walker Art Gallery have and continue to collect and display more than what is simply fashionable. (For example, amongst the collection of women’s wear is a knitted striped green jumper, with short sleeves, made from wool. The item has holes beneath each armpit, where the owners sweat has perished the material over time. This item was not collected for its’ aesthetic value, or for its unique design, but as an example of how often people wore the same clothes during the war, out of necessity.) Costume collecting practices are much more complicated than dictated by fashion alone.
Large reproduction photographs of Liverpool shops, Tinne’s receipts, sale tags and advertisements in the final room of the exhibition put the viewer into Emily’s perspective. The detail, scale and perspective of the images draw the viewer in – a feeling Emily herself must have felt when compulsively seeking the treasures within. This simulation is subtle but metaphorical. Visitors exit through the gift shop, where a selection of 1920’s themed products are available to buy. I would argue that this could risk cheapening the experience, however, visitors are so easily compelled into Emily Tinne’s world, they may desire to take a reminder home with them. Pauline informs us that shop sales have increased due to the high visitor figures for the exhibition, which is obviously beneficial for the gallery.
The rich social history of the Tinne family – (a detailed portrait of Emily herself, painted so expertly by Pauline and fuelled by the families own letters) – combined with archival film footage of people performing everyday activities, textual information and a variety of photographs, allow the viewer to momentarily escape the present and indulge in Emily Tinne’s own indulgences and privilege. People feel a strong connection to the history of their local surroundings, Emily’s character is a conduit for that. Underlying, however, are important messages regarding mental health, slavery and the origins of the collection. The exhibition was very busy when we visited during a weekday – the visitor comments book was full of praise – additionally, the paid lecture I attended was sold out, and not for the first time – there have been 6 lectures so far.