Anne Buck

Historian of dress
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The Independent Online

Anne Mary Buck, historian and curator of dress: born Harpenden, Hertfordshire 14 May 1910; OBE 1971; died Bedford 12 May 2005.

The history of dress is a field that attracts formidable ladies. Anne Buck was formidable as well as charming. She created the Gallery of English Costume in Manchester as its Keeper for a quarter of a century from 1947, making it the only significant public collection outside London.

In her long official retirement she was active in bringing serious history of dress scholarship to a wider audience, partly through her own publications, and partly as an energetic chairman first of the Society for Folk Life Studies (1972-75) and then of the Costume Society (1974-80). She moved effortlessly from being charmingly formidable to being formidably charming.

She was born in Hertfordshire, the daughter of a man who collected and recorded everything relating to the county. After St Albans High School, she went to Bedford College, then in Regent's Park, graduating in 1932. Her first job was with the Times Book Club in Wigmore Street. She was well prepared for her real métier by 1938 when she joined the staff of Luton Museum, a first-class local museum. There was already nothing she did not know about straw hats or lace-making.

She was the ideal choice as the Keeper of the Gallery of English Costume established at Platt Hall, the fine 18th-century country house on the southern edge of Manchester that became a Mecca for historians of dress. Manchester, by an appropriate mixture of municipal action and public subscription, had acquired the splendid and important collection of clothes and associated documentation built up by C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, two medical doctors whose many publications dominated the field, such as it was, in the mid-20th century.

Collections of objects are only useful if properly kept and catalogued and brought to the attention of both scholars and the public. By Buck everything was done properly, and Platt Hall became the model for museum collections of dress all over the world. Buck's grand Wigmore Street manner led to her being thought aloof in Manchester, but this only helped her get her own way. She generally got her own way for 25 years, before she retired in 1972, and a very fine way it was too.

She retired, but she was never retiring. Her classic article "The Countryman's Smock" had appeared in the first issue of Folk Life in 1963, and she became even more active in the affairs of the Society for Folk Life Studies, ensuring no descent into twee antiquarianism. She was a founder member of the Costume Society and became its commanding Chairman for six years, admirably linking scholarly interest in the history of dress with a burgeoning popular interest in "costume". She endeavoured to rescue the field from being what Sir Roy Strong devastatingly called "the victim of tawdry scholarship by the stage-struck".

Not for her the suggestive crypto-Freudianism of C. Willett Cunnington, whose Why Women Wear Clothes (1941) began: "The primary functions of Woman's clothing may have been to serve as a protection against weather - and Man . . ." What interested Buck was not speculation, but facts.

Her Dress in Eighteenth Century England (1979) is masterly. Dress, note, not costume or fashion. She wanted to know what actual people actually wore, how it was worn and what it was made of. This was a major subject, strangely neglected by conventional economic and social history at the time.

Anne Buck's house in Bedfordshire became another Mecca, well attended by other formidable women interested in clothes, despite its being very exposed to wind coming from every direction. The windows were always open, radiators were long resisted, the bitter cold moderated only by the warmth of Anne's personality. She never married; her devoted niece, Elizabeth Bentley, typed many of her published books and articles.

Costume produced a special issue in her honour in 1980, and in 1997 there was a great history-of-dress conference in Manchester to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her appointment at Platt Hall.

Negley Harte