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

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