September 28, 2011

Jabal Shams: A Palette of Neutrals

"The Poet used to say that we all have a particular topography in which we feel ourselves at home, though not all of us are fortunate enough to find the landscape which makes us so aware of that thing called 'the soul.' It is mountains for some, deserts for other, wide open plains for the most obvious in our midst. But you and I, Aasmaani, he'd tell me, we are creatures of water."

Broken Verses (2005), Kamila Shamsie

Living in Oman, I am truly fortunate to be in presence of incredibly varied terrain: the sea with its beautiful beaches, coves, and bays is just a half hour drive away while I see the sun set behind the incredible Hajar mountain-range every day. Yet, or perhaps, because of the abundance of beaches and mountains in my midst, I always wonder as to what terrain - desert, beaches, mountains - that I instinctively feel myself at home in.

A few days ago, my family and I visited Jabal Shams, the highest point in the Hajar mountain-range; as we navigated the extremely serpentine road leading up to the mountains, the temperatures falling as we left the plains, it really was like entering a whole new world, to employ a terrible cliche.

Stopping to glimpse what is dubbed as Oman's Grand Canyon, we were privy to a varied palette of neutral hues: duns, grays, olives, beiges, browns, and ochres. The shifting layers of clouds did leach the terrain of light, unfortunately, suddenly transforming a stunningly graduated mountainscape into a flat, monochrome space. It made me dwell more than ever upon how crucial the presence of plentiful - and clear - light is for painters and photographers, especially those attempting to make sense of the colors of the surrounding vistas.

In the late afternoon, when the sky had cleared up a bit, we went for a walk in Wadi Ghul, which forms the base of the Grand Canyon; the wadi [dry river beds] was an amazing study in as to how the powerful flow of water had sculpted, shaped, and teased the rocks into fantastical shapes and creations - and how the wind had further contributed towards chiseling and chipping away at the rock in the water's absence. The cracked plates of earth, frozen rock water-falls, and the curved mustard yellow rock over-hangings were evidence to the now invisible water and the audible wind's power.

Wadi Ghul

In midst of this neutral, camouflaged world, here is a bit of color I captured in the window of a wall(incidentally, this curious goat insisted on making its presence felt in every image taken there). I took this picture in a little cluster of houses, too small to be called a village even, on the edge of the mountain; yet, enterprising little children had set up stalls of rocks - I picked up one which resembled a cheesecake square - while there were several gardens around, trees laden with rosy pomegranates and garlic bulbs tied around its branches, the bulbs as big as the pomegranates themselves.

Curious goat stands guard

The shopaholic that I am, ha, I ended up buying iridescently hued key-ring and bracelet woven from goat-hair from a little stall run by a young village girl in front of the Grand Canyon. She told me that she wove her creations here in the stall itself, pulling out threads from a shopping bag jammed with supplies to show me. She cheerfully assisted me in as to which bracelet to buy, suggesting that I coordinate with the indigo blue kurta that I was wearing - but she was perfectly happy to approve the magenta, purple, and silver combination I eventually bought.

The key-ring made a brilliant contrast with the indomitable gray rock:

Instead of using it as a key-ring, I am instead thinking of using it as handbag accessory to enliven my handbags, which ironically enough happen to be in various neutral shades: I prefer to embrace color in my clothing, rather than accessories such as shoes or handbags. Incorporating this key-ring into a handbag will be my concession to color. Plus, inspired by these fashion-designer sisters, I would love to wear the bracelet with silver bracelets, the fabric and metal making a textural contrast with each other.

The day concluded with sunset, the sun playing a blush-hued hide and seek with the clouds before its blood red avatar vanished into the sky - and we were surrounded by darkness. I sensed, rather than saw, darkness after a long time, darkness becoming a palpable, tangible entity with a texture of its own.

Sunset at Jabal Shams

As we descended, I was still unsure whether I would call myself a creature of the mountains - it was decidedly a stark, severe, minimalist world - but there is no denying the fact that the spareness, the absence of - things - can be refreshing too at times. Yet, silently contemplating the sea of gray, ochre, and rust-hued rocks and then, at the ebulliently-colored bracelet around my wrist, I realised that I could not help but wish for less austerity in my surroundings. A little bit of maximalism works for me all the time...

September 21, 2011

Bombay Electric

Bombay was the first stop during my India travels this time round.

Before I continue, a note on the post's title - I always liken titles to the elusive last piece of a jigsaw puzzle: *they* ultimately create the overall, bigger picture. I love the name of the store, Bombay Electric and while I was wondering what to title this post, for some reason, the store name leaped to my mind. To be honest, I usually associate Bombay (name purists concerned, I am going to stick to Bombay for the remainder of the post!) with one of my all-time favorite books, Suketu Mehta's cult non-fiction work on Bombay, Maximum City : Bombay Lost and Found - but I prefer this moniker, after all. Electric would be the word that I personally would most closely associate with Bombay.

When it comes to Bombay, I was initially going to say that I am not much of a city person - however, the truth is that I have only visited cities and have never had the occasion to inhabit one. Like Delhi, Bombay too has been a transit point for me and in that context, I have merely been a migratory bird, literally swooping down from the air to briefly rest upon the ground before returning to air again. Perhaps, these lines from an unpublished short story of mine about a girl visiting Bombay probably best encapsulate my transient perceptions of Bombay: "Even though her previous visits to the city had been limited to a day or two, she had always perceived it as a world laden with promise of something happening: its ant-industrious people, glossy green leaves sprouting from finger-nail thin cracks in brick walls, and the invisible yet palpable presence of Bollywood, ghosts that perpetually lingered in the corners and only occasionally agreeing to be seen."

The last lines of this extract especially demonstrate that I did largely consider Bombay synonymous and virtually indistinguishable, even, from Bollywood - and this association was so overwhelming that I was not particularly inclined to see beyond it.

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

However, it was when I read Maximum City (fittingly enough, in Bombay itself) that compelled me to scrape away my surface contemplation of the city - and understand what lived, breathed, throbbed beneath, like a pulse beneath the skin. While City of Djinns opened my eyes to the palimpsest that was Delhi, Maximum City made me aware of the multiple parallel universes constituting Bombay.

One of Pushpamala N's performance art photographic works

I have tried to move out of my comfort zone, so to speak, whenever I have subsequently visited Bombay although I know that what I have encountered is merely the tip of a palace of an iceberg.

This time round, I walked around Kala Ghoda and the vintage loveliness of Fort, discovering the art galleries, Matthieu Foss Gallery, Gallery BMB, and Lakeerein Art Gallery at Arthur Bunder Road (or what my mental memory road-map says just around the corner from the Taj), where there was a great feminist photography exhibition and featuring the works of the performance artist, Pushpamala N. I also attended a Kathak performance by Pandit Chiresh Das in jugalbandi with North and South Indian percussionists at the National Center of Performing Arts, which gave me an opportunity to discover NCPA, in addition to experiencing the wonderful dance-music dialogue. In between, I bought gorgeous anklet-like sandals from street markets and mogras [jasmine] buds by the dozen and tried to intuit the exact color of the Bombay sea during twilight.

However, one of my most pleasing and serendipitous discoveries happened near Lalbaug, where I chanced upon an abandoned, locked up, moss-dressed house; finding a house so spectacularly in tropical ruin, inscrutable and shuttered, in a city of skyscrapers and transparent lives made me think it was a narrative in itself, demanding to be heard. But who could tell me its story?

** My fave Bombay sites/references: I love Fashion Bombay, where fashion stylists and journalists, Jasleen and Sonu always find the most interesting backdrops and locations in which to present their vibrantly styled outfits. Prutha of Don't Shoe Me is an experimental fashion blogger residing in New York but originally from Bombay; I loved this shoot of hers in the antique market, Chor Bazaar, which really captures the energy of the place. Finally, Mumbai Boss is essential reading, as much as for its excellent writing and insight into Bombay's fashion and art scene (my particular interests, anyway) as for their hilariously detailed recaps of the talk-shows, KWK and IMD (Koffee with Karan and India's Most Desirable to the uninitiated, starring KJO and Simi Garewal as chat-show hosts) - so much better than enduring the episodes themselves:P

Pushpamala N image courtesy Philips de Pury and Company

September 14, 2011

The Wall Project: Osian, Rajasthan

Up till now, all the walls that I have chosen to feature in the Wall Project posts have been works of minimalism; one or two salient defining features make them distinctive, compelling the eye towards them. Whereas, over here, this wall is patently anything but minimalist; there is so much going on over here, vying and jostling for attention, yet, each disparate aspect of the wall still manages to make itself visible.

For starters, the wall was clearly an advertisement/billboard space for a tea brand as the prominent black 'Chai' [Tea] in the Devanagari script and an accompanying image of a tea-packet reveals; the once brilliant mustard yellow paint has now faded and flaked away,the paint-free blotches so arbitrarily scattered across the wall that it is almost as if a child rubbed it away with an eraser. The vanishing paint reveals the previous advertisements below, suddenly made visible, as if soaked in lemon juice and held to the light. Meanwhile, signboards for State Bank of India and a Maheshwari Bhojanalya [Eating Place] obscure the upper portion of the wall along with an fragile parabola curve of a wire that loops across the wall. And finally, a faded red flag juts out of the tea-packet image.

I absently and quickly took this picture because I was more interested in the contrast presented between the little bit of green foliage in the corner, the dove blue dusk sky, and the wall itself; later, I realised that it is the wall that dominates the picture, the subdued tones of the time of the day unable to detract from its orderly cluttered-ness.

September 9, 2011

Fashion and Museums - Part 2

Here is the second installment of the Fashion and Museums post; this article was about an exhibition of French wedding dresses, dating from 19th century to present, held in Bait Fransa, the Omani-French Museum, in old Muscat. The wedding dresses were on loan from Galliera, the City of Paris Fashion Museum - next time I am in Paris, forget Louvre/Eiffel Tower/Champs Elysees, this is where I am headed...!

The exhibition intrigued me at so many levels; a wedding dress happens to be one of the most significant dresses a woman will wear in her life-time and the exhibition celebrates how brides have chosen to dress themselves for this all-important day over the centuries. For me, my perception of the wedding dresses was also influenced by the fact that I primarily identify wedding dresses with red, pink, and fuchsia as these are usually the colors of a typical wedding dress that a bride would wear in Rajasthan, the part of India I am from**; it demonstrates how my cultural conditioning had shaped my visual association with the phrase, 'wedding dress', for instance. While the majority of the wedding dresses are white (there are also additional dresses which were worn in different ceremonies marking the wedding day and therefore, in different colors), the recent decades have nevertheless witnessed fashion designers challenging the traditional white wedding dress paradigm; for example, there was a black-embellished melon-hued 1996 Christian Lacroix dress on display which testifies to that trend.

Wedding dress, Christian Lacroix, 1996

Apart from the dresses themselves, I also appreciated the amount of attention and thought invested in making the exhibition a thoroughly interactive experience through literary quotes, audio-visual presentations, and assorted objects loosely related to the exhibition - you weren't looking at just the wedding dresses, you found yourself being immersed in the period in which they were created and appreciating the influence the prevailing social and cultural trends had upon the fashion at the time.

This article was originally published in Weekend Review, Gulf News:

On loan from Galliera, City of Paris Fashion Museum, in conjunction with French Embassy and the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, City of Paris and Paris Musee, the 35 wedding dresses [at the exhibition] not only enable insight into the evolution of French wedding fashion but also take into account and provide an illuminating commentary on simultaneously occurring social changes, such as invention of cinema and advent of the designer figure, that contributed towards the metamorphosis of the wedding dress. Featuring creations of France’s iconic fashion designers, such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, and Christian Dior, the exhibition also artfully weaves in a multitude of historical objects and visual layers such as doll’s clothing, quotations from French literary writers, cinema reels, and wax-flower hair adornments to create an interesting tapestry of experience for the visitor.

The genesis of the exhibition occurred with the French Embassy’s desire to commemorate Oman’s 40th anniversary of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s reign through the medium of fashion, one of France’s greatest cultural exports; it was thus decided that wedding dresses would feature as the theme for the very nature of weddings and wedding dresses conjures up an atmosphere of gaiety and celebration.

“While the exhibition itself took a month and half to set up, preparations began in May; the exhibition curator from Galliera, Anne Zazzo came down to Oman then, following which we saw the building and had discussions as to how we would accordingly present the exhibition,” Filip Keunen, the exhibition art director, told Weekend Review.

Considering that the exhibition’s very title refers to a specific period of time, as in 200 years, the exhibition therefore greatly plays with the concept of time, in terms of both the presentation as well using the architecture of the Bait Fransa building itself. An one hundred and sixty year old two-storey house, containing a confluence of Arab and Indian architectural styles, Zazzo and Keunen were intent that that the eleven rooms in Bait Fransa played an important role in the exhibition, revealing it to be a house of discoveries. “The marriage between the pieces and the space/place was extremely significant,” says Keunen. “We were playing with all kinds of notion of time, as in the chronological presentation of the dresses and the historical context of the building along with including items that contributed towards changing the perception of time itself,” Keunen says. The ground floor is thus largely dedicated to dresses from 19th to early twentieth century while upstairs contains wedding haute couture fashion dated from 1970 onwards.

One of the striking aspects about the exhibition is that the wedding dresses do not exist in isolation; while the dresses are crucial narratives in themselves, as in the actual dresses and fashion that dictated their appearance, the team also diligently incorporated them into being part of a greater social narrative occurring over time as well. The decision to do so was also in alignment with the exhibition’s vision of toying around with time. The specifically named rooms such as the Cinema room indicates the impact moving images had upon the world, what with allowing a moment to be relived, rather than being frozen in time, through the inclusion of a Brothers Lumiere film reel. Another room is dedicated to documenting the pictorial representation of wedding dresses over the last two centuries, etchings graduating into print and twentieth century glossy magazines; one also glimpses a doll that used to be a marketing and advertorial tool, the designers dressing the doll in their designs and sending them to potential customers. The room reveals the consistency of the preoccupation with the wedding dress, predicated upon the assumption that it would be the most important dress that a woman would wear in her life, given the enormous sanctity of the wedding ritual and being married, and the attention dedicated to it, albeit in changing media avatars over time.

Wedding dress from 1868

All the dresses have been donated to Galliera, the magnificence of the vintage dresses particularly underscoring the vigilant meticulousness with which they have been preserved. Apart from being immensely valuable examples of sartorial heritage, Keunen says that these dresses also expressly communicate bespoke wealth and status, the dress ultimately superseding its wearer and indeed, its anonymous creator. He informs that the French wedding was a highly codified affair during the 19th century, each ceremony necessitating a particular dress and other additional accoutrements be worn; to illustrate that purpose, the exhibition contains an example of an 1885 wedding dress along with a cobalt blue dress which was worn following the wedding ceremony. However, these elaborate rituals and ritual-specific dresses have long since faded away what with the main wedding dress now occupying centre-stage.

Given that aspect, in addition to the plethora of iconic designer names’ wedding dress creations dominating the exhibition, the exhibition crucially explores the intimate relationship between wedding dresses and prevailing fashions. “In the earlier times, the wedding dresses’ style coincided with that of mainstream fashion,” Keunen says, the Cinema room showing examples of daily-wear dresses alongside that of its wedding dress contemporary. However, the advent of the designer from 1960s resulted into the wedding dress disassociating itself from contemporary fashion trends and occupying an entirely novel fashion realm altogether. “The designer respected the traditional elements of the wedding dress: the bouquet, the train, and the veil, while injecting their own individuality into the dress,” describes Keunen, adding that the wedding dress serves as a veritable sum of the designers’ creative abilities. The fact that the wedding dress figures as the apogee of the designer’s creative vision and that it also happens to be the most significant and beautiful dress that a woman will most likely ever wear in her life undeniably renders the bride as the ultimate heroine of her wedding day.

Wedding Dress, Jean Paul Gaultier, 2009

The cult of the designer-figure thus initiated an era in which an individual designer’s interpretation of the wedding dress was as much a testament to the wedding dress as to his own style palette. In Karl Lagerfeld’s 1994 dress, he incorporates the iconic Chanel jacket into the structure of the dress while Jean Paul Gaultier completely takes familiar elements out of context in an eclectic post-modern take when the dress-structure becomes the veil while the veil transforms itself into a dress in his 2009 creation. “However, the interesting irony is that that post 1960, none of these dresses are ever worn; they are all catwalk models,” Keunen points out. “They function as designers’ creative name-cards, works of art never to be sold.”

Apart from the haute couture creations on the second floor, the ground floor also provides further examples of fantastical wedding dresses, this particular display associated with Fairytales: one is a dress radically crafted from paper while Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s 2000 creation is constructed from multiple miniature dolls’ dresses, a doll clinging to the back of the dress. The viewer also encounters a ceramic green frog in midst of the dresses. “The frog represents the Princess and the Frog fairytale, the princess kissing the frog to see it being transformed into a prince,” Keunen reveals, saying that the conjunction of the fairy-tale and the dresses loop back to the notion of the wedding being a fairy-tale affair that many little girls grow up dreaming of with the requisite Prince Charming and fantasy wedding dress.

“The exhibition is interlaid with multiple layers and we presented as many relevant links and associations to the wedding dresses,” says Keunen, indicating the desire for the spectator to engage with the pieces on display and abstract their own stories from them. For example, the room displaying dresses from the 19th century contains a necklace made of 27,000 year old shells; the shells were discovered in 1868, thus linking to a dress made in that year. Other times, the relationship between the dress and that of the surrounding visual interventions are more abstruse; for example, a time-lapse video of the Parisian sky one day studded with fluffy cumulous clouds refers to the billowing removable sleeves that a bride was expected to wear during the religious wedding ceremony in the day; the bride then removed the sleeves to wear the dress with shorter sleeves during the evening ball. Quotes from renowned French literary figures such as Proust and de Balzac also adorn the walls, creating an installation-like interplay with the words, dresses, and the objects.

Visitors can also see objects that helped contribute towards the transformation of a woman into a bride: a 16th century ivory comb, wax orange-blossom shaped hair adornments dated 1905 and delicate satin 1830 bridal shoes. Yet, the present is never far away what with fashion shoe aficionados undoubtedly finding the inclusion of a Christian Louboutin shoe fascinating, its trademark scarlet sole in dramatic contrast to that of the shoe’s other traditional wedding white lace and corsage elements.

The wedding dress is a coveted item of delight for its wearer, representing beauty, love, and a promise of everlasting happiness within its folds, while evoking similar sentiments from its viewers. The Galliera exhibition reaffirms these associations through the beautiful examples on display while also putting them in a context that takes them beyond the confines of a wedding and into a larger socio-cultural picture.

** However, Indian brides are also nowadays bucking the trend by choosing colors that would be considered unconventional for their bridal outfits

September 8, 2011

Fashion and Museums - Part 1

If I hadn't been a writer, I would have definitely been pursuing research in fashion history instead; I am always curious about how fashion has evolved over time and in different cultures and if there is a fashion museum/exhibit exploring that idea, there can't be anything better than that. While it's always fascinating to see the actual historical fashion item in itself, I also appreciate learning the story behind it.

This two-part post features two articles I have written about the subject.

This article below is about the Fashion Museum in Bath, United Kingdom and was originally published in Weekend Review, Gulf News:

Situated in the historic Assembly Rooms at Bath, United Kingdom, the Fashion Museum [previously known as the Museum of Costume] is dedicated to collecting, preserving, documenting, studying, exhibiting, and essentially, celebrating examples of fashion during the last four hundred years. Doris Langley Moore, a collector, costume designer, and author, donated her collection to Bath in 1963 upon which the Bath City Council subsequently decided to use it to found the Museum of Costume.

The Fashion Museum acquired its present name only in 2007 with the decision to alter its name having been taken after extensive discussion. “Essentially, the name change came about because the word 'fashion' more accurately describes both the museum collections - and the displays that visitors can expect to see when they visit - than the word 'costume'.’Costume' nowadays means garments that you put on when you are assuming a theatrical role, for example,” explains Rosemary Harden, Fashion Museum manager. The associations conjured up from the word, ‘costume’ and the aim of the museum to present a collection of both historic and contemporary fashion were becoming divergent, thus necessitating the renaming of the museum. “Now, it is much clearer that the displays in the gallery reflect that this is a museum of fashion through the ages,” says Harden.

Hosting periodically changing displays, the Museum offers a fascinating opportunity to voyage back in time and experience the multi-layered nature of sartorial history right up till present day. The sheer multiplicity and diversity of items on display reflect the great effort invested in presenting fashion as an essential tool with which to contextualize and understand prevailing contemporary social, aesthetic, and design trends. The museum therefore invites the visitor to look beyond charges often leveled against fashion of it being frivolous and fleeting through emphasizing that its evolution has been a cumulative result of its complex relationship with many factors such as socio-political developments, design innovations, technological advances pertaining to textiles and fabrics, and other significant cultural occurrences. “We aspire to present [fashion] in beautiful, inspiring, interesting, enjoyable, and thought provoking ways,” says Harden.

1300 pairs of shoes dating from 1700 to today

According to Harden, the museum currently estimates that it has more than 60, 000 items in its collection; the institution is offered items daily for collection and adds approximately 300 acquisitions to the museum collection every year. “For example, in the past month alone, we were given two stunning evening dresses by Versace from 2006, a trousseau collection from the 1930s, and a collection of fashion drawings from the 1960s,” says Harden. The collection consists of menswear, womenswear, which constitutes the largest percentage of the overall collection and consists primarily that of fashionable dress worn by women, childrenswear, and accessories such as shoes, handbags, and gloves. In fact, the oldest item in the collection happens to be a pair of gloves dating back to 1630s and reputed to have belonged to King Charles 1.

Dress of the Year exhibit

Current displays include Dress of the Year, Dresses of History, and 17th Century Gloves; each display strives to present a particular aspect of fashion in a relevant context. Dress of the Year, for instance, consists of dresses of each decade in the last forty years or so, providing an illuminating walk through the fashionscape over the years; it is interesting to note how a dress selected for a certain year can often embody the defining trends of the particular decade it is associated with. The selection of the Dress of The Year occurs when each year a fashion expert chooses an example from the best fashions across the world to include in the collection; the fashions in the collection are by designers such as Mary Quant, Ossie Clark, Jean Muir, Versace, and Paul Ford. For example, one of the dresses representing the year 2000 is a blue-green bamboo-print silk chiffon Versace gown with a jeweled clasp and which Jennifer Lopez and Geri Halliwell were famously photographed in. “It is our hope that the display makes people choose one particular dress as their favorite out of all the ones exhibited,” Harden says, adding that the exhibit also intends to make people recall their own fashion memories of particular years and remember what they happened to be wearing in any of the years displayed.

An example from Dresses of History exhibit

Dresses of History meanwhile demonstrates how one can contextualize fashion with prevailing contemporary design and aesthetic trends; showcasing fourteen examples of Georgian, Regency, and Victorian dresses, an exhibit example consists of a dress placed in a meticulously decorated and furnished room and surrounded by objects used during the time. “We wanted to give the dresses on display a chronological context,” explains Harden. “For example, the eighteenth century twisted stem drinking glasses on display alongside the brocaded silk sack back dress would have been produced at roughly the same time in history.” It was therefore also conceivable that these styles of ‘decorative arts’ would have been seen or used at the same time. Another example is that of a late Victorian evening dress which has an embroidered pattern of a long sinuous iris flower; the exhibit also features a Tiffany vase of approximately the same time which follows the same design lines. “[Apart from indicating how closely fashion and other design trends intermingled] our aim in this gallery was also to produce a beautiful and visually compelling display - almost an installation - which would draw visitors in and be pleasing to the eye,” says Harden. In addition to displaying the dresses and associated objects, this particular gallery also has items such as portrait miniatures and one of Queen Victoria’s black wool dresses, in reference to her solely wearing black following the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert for the remaining forty years of her reign and also delineating Victorian social mores in which colors of mourning worn by grieving widows eventually graduated from unadulterated black to shades of white and gray over time.

Floral frock from the 1960s

References to retro and vintage fashion have increasingly become common nowadays in fashion parlance what with both vintage fashion trends and the items themselves being in great demand. A popular British high-street fashion chain, Oasis collaborated with the Fashion Museum on a project in which Oasis based one of its lines of the Spring/Summer 2008 collection, ‘Floral Frocks’ [keeping in mind the current trend then for florals] on floral-patterned dresses from the 50s, 60s, and 70s that the Fashion Museum possessed in its collection. The translation of vintage designs into their modern avatars makes for interesting viewing what with Oasis having donated one of each of the dresses inspired by the Fashion Museum collection to the Museum itself; the display therefore features both the vintage and designer dresses, inviting the viewer to appreciate the synthesis of the old and new. “Oasis ‘Floral Frocks’ in fact happened to be one of the best-selling lines of Spring/Summer 2008 and it was a most interesting undertaking for the Fashion Museum,” Harden says. “We are pleased that not only Oasis but other contemporary design practitioners are inspired by objects in the collection, and we hope to facilitate other partnerships of this type in the future.”

The Museum uses both physical examples of fashion as well as cultural references such as photographs and music album covers to convey the impact of fashion on contemporary popular culture. One display focuses on wedding photographs taken during the period between 1890s and 1920s and 30s, reflecting how prevailing social and political circumstances subtly altered the silhouettes and hemlines of the bridal gown or if men present in the wedding party eschewed hats or not. Similarly, alongside the Dress of the Year display, viewers can also examine pop music album covers of the decades represented, tracing possible connections between the trends embodied within the haute couture of a particular decade and that of a more relaxed, street-fashion vibe present in the album covers.

Fashion in the museum often emerges as instances of such great visual art that the way a particular garment has been cut or the workmanship of another can make the viewer almost forget that fashion has a fundamental functional purpose: to be worn. In this context, the section in which museum visitors are encouraged to try out wearing corsets links to fashion dilemmas that contemporary fashionistas often encounter while attempting to negotiate the precarious balance between being comfortable in what they wear or perfecting a stylish fa├žade despite physical unease. A garment that is primarily used to shape the torso into a desired physique, the corset is largely associated with eighteeth and nineteenth century women’s hour-glass shaped gowns; fashion trends then dictated full gowns and small waists, an effect that corsets were able to achieve although not without causing great physical discomfort. While displaying examples of corsets from the 18th and 19th century, the Museum also provides replica corsets manufactured to twenty first century specifications for both adults and children to put on. “We hope that visitors will get some sense of what it was like firstly to get in to a corset, and then what it might have been like to wear a garment like a corset in the 19th century,” Harden says.

The location of the Fashion Museum is the Assembly Rooms, which themselves historically were and continue to be a fashionable social hub, playing host to a variety of events and occasions in Bath. Like its location, which offered a space for debate, play, and discussion, the museum provokes rethinking of attitudes towards fashion by liberating it from its tendency to be straitjacketed as being frivolous and materialistic and re-presenting it in a way in which fashion provides valuable examples of visual art, socio-historical markers, and pop culture barometers.

All images courtesy Fashion Museum, Bath