You might have thought with my keen interest in all things fashion, textiles and sewing that I would have visited a museum dedicated to that very subject long before now, but no, I haven’t. Time to put that right with a trip to the Fashion and Textiles museum in south London http://www.tfmlondon.org It was founded by designer Zandra Rhodes in Bermondsey and, since 2006, is operated by Newham College offering many courses and study days alongside the exhibitions.
My good friend and former colleague Caroline spotted that FTM was offering a session during which we’d be able to see and handle Paris haute couture garments and it seemed to good an opportunity to miss.
The ticket price included entry to the current exhibition which encompasses the textile design history of London store Liberty and Co in Regents St which is perhaps my favourite store anywhere! If you’ve never been to it you really should because it’s absolutely beautiful. The outside was designed and built in 1924 to look like several smaller stores and the interior was created using wood salvaged from two old ships, HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan. You can read more on their own website at http://www.liberty.co.uk.
Caroline and I spent an hour or two wandering around the exhibits which, happily, you can get pretty close to and you’re allowed to photograph too.
We enjoyed the chance to see everything at such close quarters because so often in museums there’s glass in the way or you’re not allowed to take pictures. For both of us too it was a bit of a trip down memory lane because we both cut our ‘sewing teeth’ on floral tiered skirts and the peasant styles of the late 70’s and then forged our early careers in the mid to late eighties-it all seemed so familiar!
After lunch (very nice cafe attached with a tasty and varied menu!) we were ready for the main event! Time to don the white gloves and get ‘hands on’.
About 12 of us were ushered to the upstairs education room where we were greeted by the curator Dennis who had 2 mystery garments covered in tissue on the table in front of him. Oooh the anticipation! He told us a little of the history of Haute Couture in Paris-the concept was started originally by an Englishman Charles Frederick Worth in the mid 19th century (look here for more information about him https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Frederick_Worth) and the term is very specific to the highest standards of fashion, it is governed by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in Paris to very exacting rules and criteria. Only those fashion houses which meet these criteria are entitled to call their collections Haute Couture. The quality of garments created by the workforce of these couturiers is the highest anywhere and often those staff have worked there for many years, decades even, and frequently much longer than the designer him or herself! Couture is a word that can be used by anyone to indicate a high quality product but very few can call themselves Haute Couture and the Chambre Syndicale protect the name zealously.
Dennis then removed the tissue to reveal a Christian Dior costume from 1957-10 years post-New Look and actually the year Dior died. The outfit was in two parts as a dress and an over skirt, originally in a duck egg blue now sadly rather faded. The dress had an in-built boned corset and multiple layered underskirt with a bodice of taffeta overlaid with organza which was embroidered and beaded. The overskirt was a very delicate silk organza which was exquisitely embroidered with a scene of shepherds and shepherdesses around the hem.
Many elements of the garment were finished by hand although the major seams were sewn on a sewing machine. The overskirt for example had a tiny hand-rolled hem which couldn’t be achieved on a machine. The french seams were absolutely TINY and finished by hand too. We were whisked through a number of different couture garments including a Chanel suit in cream wool and trimmed with chunky gold chains (not to everyone’s taste)
The next few garments were by Balenciaga and Balmain, Balenciaga was renowned for his beautiful fit and attention to detail-everything was very pared down but beautifully crafted. The fabric of the moss-green coat was simply stunning (I wanted to take my white gloves off to feel the full effect!)
Dennis showed us what looked like the simplest of sarong-style dresses by Balenciaga but in fact had a complex under corset which made it fit snuggly to the body. It may have been strapless but it wasn’t going anywhere!
We were brought more up to date with gowns by Christian Lacroix (darling) who no longer creates haute couture because of the extreme costs involved, a great shame because, along with Jean Paul Gaultier, he was one of the most innovative and original designers in Paris.
The final gown we got to see close up was the dress worn by Halle Berry when she won her Oscar in 2002. It’s a spectacular gown in red silk taffeta with an daring strategically-embroidered red mesh bodice by Israeli designer Elie Saab. This was the antithesis of the others because it was so deconstructed, there was no boning or underskirts at all but the bodice was essentially a bodysuit which did up underneath between the legs-this held it all in position and prevented it from riding up. The embroidery had been made separately and the appliquéd onto the mesh.
We really enjoyed the chance to see inside these extraordinary garments and whilst it wasn’t cheap (£30 each which included entry into the museum, usually £9 for an adult) it was a great opportunity to do something I’ve always itched to do. To see close up the delicacy of the finishing, the precision of the stitching and the beautiful fabrics was an absolute treat. Let me know what you think of the exhibition if you go to it!