People Profile – Marion May Fashion Collector

Marion lives in Shamley Green and has been making costumes since 1971 for the S.H.A.D.E.S Drama society, which
she and her husband have been involved in for over 20 years.

Marion became inspired by period costume after handling over 3,000 theatrical fancy dress garments for David Clarke’s Silver Jubilee Pageant in Shalford Park in 1977.
This was to celebrate the 700 years since Guildford had been granted its Royal Charter by Henry III. With a cast of thousands, the pageant ran for 10 days and a matinee performance was attended by the Queen.

In 1979, she enrolled at Guildford Adult Education Centre for costume classes, in which she was tutored by Rita Kipling. Marion moved on to specialise in the collection of an- tique clothes. Her first “fashionable find” was a 1905 three piece wedding dress, complete with hat and shoes, made in Wonersh for a Shamley Green school teacher who married the local blacksmith.

Marion found and was donated several more “historic hand-me-downs”.

In the 1980s, a Shalford lady donated a cream Spitalfields silk dress dating from the 1780s to the collection. She and her sister had used the outfit when playing ‘dressing up’ games as young children. No petticoat was included. However, a friend of Marion’s made a replica quilted petticoat for display purposes.

Whilst on holiday in Harrogate, a stall holder in an antiques centre tried to entice Marion into buying what the seller thought was a bustle dress. Marion, however, realised it was a wood block printed cotton dress dating from around 1810, which she decided to purchase for a mere £10!

Another impressive bargain was a beautiful cream satin John Cavanagh wedding gown, left at the end of a jumble sale in Cranleigh, and purchased for £1!

John Cavanagh was a successful Irish London-based couturier of the 1950s and 1960s,and a member of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers. He dressed many film and stage stars and also designed the silk wedding dress for the Duchess of Kent
in 1961 and two years later, the lace gown for Princess Alexandra’s wedding.
As there was no provenance for the dress, Marion arranged to meet John Cavanagh’s personal assistant who estimated the gown to be dated from the late 1950s. After organising dress shows for charity, modelled by her friends, she offered to showcase dresses in Cranleigh Arts Centre in 1995. The curator of Guildford House Gallery was visiting the Centre and asked Marion to exhibit at the gallery after seeing her dresses.

Up until 2013, Marion has staged a total of 25 exhibitions, some of which held the creative titles – “The intrepid traveller”, “Fashion And Reality”, “A Nice Piece of Skirt, and “Colourful Occasions”.

Ten years ago, Marion joined the Southern Counties Costume Society and has given two workshops, titled: “All a Bustle” and “The Edwardian Lady”.
The Museum of Farnham offered a tantalising peek into the Secrets of the Bridal Boudoir on January 16 of this year, with Marion’s talk on the history of undergarments, titled: “From Crinolines to Camiknickers”. Her collection is vast and diverse, from underwear to formal wear, wedding dresses and party dresses.

Marion has exhibited at venues in Guildford, Godalming, Chertsey, and Kingston upon Thames to name but a few. She has exhibited at several museums, Petworth House and Guildford Cathedral. She has also showcased in Watts Gallery and several flower festivals,not to mention her appearance on Southern Television when many of her Regency designs were shown for the filming of the Jane Austen festival in Bath – BBC’s Miriam O’Reilly presented the programme wearing Marion’s costume.

2014 was a very busy year for Marion, with many societies requiring and commissioning 1st World War costumes. A number of varied dresses were on display at Christ Church, Shamley Green for their 150th anniversary.

That August, ten dresses were loaned to the Regency Town House, Hove, for “Silhouettes of the Past” 1780-1960, displayed by students from Brighton University.

November – February 2016 saw twelve of her wedding dresses at Farnham Museum.
Marion currently has a collection of approximately 100 garments dating from 1780, plus numerous articles of underwear, from crinoline petticoats to camiknickers . . . and even a “liberty” bodice.


On Saturday 21st May in the Arbuthnot Hall, Shamley Green there will be a display of Marion’s “Alphabet of Accessories”. Together with another member, Carolyn Last, who is presenting a selection of hats from her vast collection, under the title of: “The Finishing Touches”.  All Visitors welcome!

Marion would especially like to welcome fashion students to study the dresses in her collection.

Marion is contactable through her phone number: 01483 898206

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