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Material memories: a personal connection to an Affleck & Brown Edwardian ensemble

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This cream silk day dress from 1909 is the epitome of Edwardian elegance! It is a beautiful example of a heavily decorated Edwardian dress with its lovely array of trimmings and embellishments.

When examining and measuring this Edwardian ensemble whilst preparing the costume mount to exhibit the dress in the La Belle Époque fashion exhibition, the Fashion Curator, Charlotte McReynolds, noticed a maker’s mark on the waistband of the skirt. The label was quite difficult to read, because it was made of cream grosgrain and the maker’s name was in cream cotton thread of the same shade.

When I had a closer look, I noticed that the label was for ‘Affleck & Brown, Manchester’. This ensemble was bought by a curator from an auction, and unfortunately it did not come with any provenance information regarding the original owner of the clothing. Therefore, we do not know anything about the woman who purchased and wore this dress. However, I was very excited to see this maker’s mark, because I have a personal family connection to Affleck & Brown. I want to tell you a little bit about this wonderful ensemble, the maker Affleck & Brown, and my personal connection to the company.

Image: Affleck and Brown ensemble, 1909
Affleck and Brown ensemble, 1909
Image: The maker’s label for ‘Affleck & Brown, Manchester’
The maker’s label for ‘Affleck & Brown, Manchester’

The Edwardian ensemble

This delicate cream silk ensemble, dates from 1909 and it is comprised of a bodice and skirt. The bodice has a rectangular neck insert, which emphasises the low hanging ‘mono-bosom’ that was fashionable at the time. The mono-bosom shape was created by the ‘s’ bend corset that would have been worn under the dress. The bodice closes at the centre back with metal hook and eye fastenings. The skirt and bodice were machine sewn, but the embellishments were added by hand. The clothing is finished with decorative elements. The bodice has thread lace inserts, metal lace inserts, crochet panels, lace embellishments, and a high lace neckline. It is embroidered in silk, and it is trimmed with silk tassels and silk braided details across the bodice and sleeves. The tassels and braiding are military-inspired details, reflecting that militaria and menswear were influential on fashionable womenswear. There are fine vertical pleats across the bodice and there are horizontal pleats along the length of the sleeves. The bodice has a silk waistband that gathers at the side with an oval fastening. The fine pleating, lace panels and military details are echoed in the skirt. However, the skirt is much simpler than the bodice and the majority of the decorative embellishments on the ensemble are on the bodice. The overall appearance of the ensemble is of stylish Edwardian elegance. It is light and delicate and combines feminine refinement with touches of masculine military decoration.

Image: The ensemble mounted for display in the La Belle Époque exhibition and a close-up of the ensemble showing the array of embellishments
The ensemble mounted for display in the La Belle Époque exhibition and a close-up of the ensemble showing the array of embellishments
Image: The back of the bodice and the array of lace, metal, crochet, and silk embellishments
The back of the bodice and the array of lace, metal, crochet, and silk embellishments
Image: Close up photographs of the bodice and the sleeve embellishments
Close up photographs of the bodice and the sleeve embellishments

Affleck & Brown

Now on to Affleck & Brown! Affleck & Brown started in business in the 1860s as a drapers, silk mercers, shawl and mantle warehouse on Oldham Street in Manchester.1 During the later decades of the nineteenth century, Affleck & Brown expanded rapidly, and it became a large department store covering a block on the corner of Oldham and Church Street. At this time, department stores were emerging in cities across Britain and Ireland. As with Affleck & Brown, many of the department stores developed from drapery shops. Affleck & Brown enjoyed initial success by buying the stock of bankrupt drapery firms and selling on the goods cheaply to their customers. For example, in July 1867, Affleck & Brown advertised that they had bought from ‘John Kerr, accountant, the stock of Morgan, draper, hosier, and glover, London Road, at 45% below cost price’ and that they were selling on the stock at favourable prices to their customers.2

At the Affleck & Brown department store a whole range of clothing, accessories and materials could be acquired. Some of the clothing was ready-made. However, they also employed dressmakers, tailoresses and milliners to work on-site to manufacture clothing and accessories for customers. They regularly advertised for dressmakers and milliners in local newspapers. In 1909, an advertisement appeared in the Manchester Evening News seeking: ‘several experienced bodice, skirt and sleeve hands; also good alteration hands, for coats and skirts; must be accustomed to good class work. – Costume Department, Affleck & Brown, Oldham Street, Manchester.’3 Similarly, an advertisement from 1905 stated: ‘Ladies’ tailoring – wanted, first class tailors, tailoresses, and skirt makers. – Apply Monday morning next, costumes department, Affleck and Brown.’4

Image: Affleck & Brown department store advertisement
Affleck & Brown department store advertisement

Family Connection

This is where my family connection comes in! My maternal grandmother’s side of the family is from Manchester. In the Edwardian period, when the ensemble was made, my great-aunt, Leah Black, worked for Affleck & Brown as a milliner. Leah was an incredibly talented milliner, seamstress and embroiderer. My grandmother used to tell me that you had to examine Leah’s needlework up close, because it was so difficult to tell the front of her work from the back. She made most of her own clothing. Indeed, we believe that she made the dress in the photograph below. She was about seventeen when this photo of her was taken. Owing to her needlework and millinery talent, Leah started working in Affleck & Brown as a young woman. My grandmother was very proud of this connection to the famous Manchester department store, and she would emphasise how posh the shop was and then quickly follow up by telling me that Affleck & Brown clothing was far too fancy for my family to afford!  

Image: Photograph of Leah Black aged about 17 (Photograph from my family’s private collection)
Photograph of Leah Black aged about 17 (Photograph from my family’s private collection)

During WW1, Leah’s brother Joe Black was killed whilst fighting in France. Her parents were devastated by the loss of their son, and Leah subsequently stopped working to care for her parents as they grieved. Leah Black died when I was two in 1992, so I did not know her personally. My family always speak of her fondly. I gather that she was a kind but formidable woman with a very quick wit and a fast mind. Until she died, at age 98, she was reading an array of daily newspapers and passionately debating political issues with anyone who would participate! Something to aspire to! Her formidable character has contributed to a belief in the family that Leah stopped working for Affleck & Brown because she didn’t like being told what to do with her sewing and millinery work! I’m told that she wasn’t the sort of person that took direction from others well, particularly if she believed that she had a better method or if she was convinced of her own ideas. So, working for someone else didn’t really suit her! Nevertheless, she continued to make clothing and produce beautiful needlework using her own methods and to her own tastes throughout her life!

 

Affleck & Brown to Affleck’s Palace

Affleck & Brown remained popular until the 1930s, but after WWII the company went into rapid decline.5 The business struggled after WWII as the major shopping districts in Manchester moved away from Oldham Street. Affleck & Brown was taken over by Debenhams in the 1950s and it finally closed its doors in 1973. However, the building has remained an important shopping space in Manchester city centre. The building then became known as Affleck’s Palace, today it is called simply, Affleck’s. It is now an indoor market housing over seventy independent stalls and boutiques. I remember visiting Affleck’s Palace as a teenager when I visited my grandparents in Manchester. I loved getting lost in the building buying tie-dyed t-shirts, flared jeans and badges to pin on my denim jacket. It was the sort of place that goths, scene kids, emos, ravers, and all manner and variety of youth subcultures could buy clothing and accessories to suit their style. I remember it always being very busy on Saturdays, when it seemed like all the teenagers in the city were browsing the stalls with their friends. It reminded me of an indoor and northern version of Camden Market. Today, the building is at the heart of the Northern Quarter of the city, a trendy neighbourhood with lots of independent shops, bars, interesting street art, live music venues, artists’ studios and design centres.

Image: Affleck & Brown, Oldham Street, 1910 (GB127.m03775, courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives.
Affleck & Brown, Oldham Street, 1910 (GB127.m03775, courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives.

I hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about this wonderful Edwardian ensemble, and my personal and family connection to Affleck & Brown. One of the reasons it is a joy to work with clothing from the fashion collection is that you can make wonderful discoveries about the objects. In this case, working with the clothing had a personal connection that evoked lots of memories for me. I believe that clothing holds strong material and emotional memories, not just for the person who originally wore the clothing, but also for people who interact with it many years later! You can see this elegant Edwardian ensemble in the La Belle Époque exhibition at the Ulster Museum. Maybe some of the clothing on display will evoke memories for you too!

1 The Ashton Weekly Reporter, and Stalybridge and Dukinfield Chronicle, 27 July 1867.

2 The Ashton Weekly Reporter, and Stalybridge and Dukinfield Chronicle, 27 July 1867.

3 Manchester Evening News, 28 April 1909.

4 Manchester Evening News, 30 March 1905.

5 Emily Heward, ‘Manchester’s lost shops: A department store with a farm in the basement and the record shop at the heart of Northern Soul’, 3 March 2019  https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/manchesters-lost-shops-department-store-15891445 (last accessed 12 January 2021).

Image credits:

Photograph of Affleck & Brown, Courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information, and Archives.

Photograph of Leah Black, McKee-Hughes Family Private Collection.