The Fashion & Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, London is hosting a new exhibition of gorgeous vintage frocks from the 1930’s so I thought I’d tell you a little about it to whet your appetite if you’re looking for an exhibition to go to.
It’s called “Night and Day: 1930s fashion and photographs” and is on now until January 20th, 2019 so you’ve got a little while in which to see it. I know a few people are a bit sniffy about the FTM, I’m not really sure why as I think they put on small but interesting fashion and textile (!) related shows which are very varied in their content and unlike most other shows they aren’t expensive. One of the things I like best is that you can get so close to the exhibits without glass getting in the way so you can really see, in many cases, exactly what you’re looking at. There is always labelling in the vicinity for the exhibits but you also get a purpose-designed booklet, always in keeping with the theme, to accompany it as well. I generally keep this to have a read through later on because in this case there’s a wealth of background information of the social upheaval that was going on at the time to give you some context. I’ve found if I try to read the booklet I don’t look at the clothes and vice versa.
This show is divided into linked groups of gowns, dresses and ensembles, including some menswear. There are stunning evening gowns in a myriad of beautiful shades and fabrics, day dresses, floaty summer gowns complete with gorgeous straw hats and practical but elegant daywear, always with hats!
I’d gone on this particular day because fashion historian Amber Butchart was giving a talk about her new book, “The Fashion Chronicles: the style stories of history’s best dressed” which was absolutely fascinating, she’s an excellent speaker and really knows her subject. I bought a copy of her book afterwards and took the chance to ask her if there will be another series of “a Stitch in Time” on BBC4. Sadly she doesn’t think there will be at present unless we campaign for it. I found it such an interesting series and I know a lot of others who don’t have an interest in fashion or textiles per se found it fascinating too. Shame…
This show isn’t only clothes and as is often the case there are also some lovely photographs on display as well, including a gallery full of those by Cecil Beaton.
It might be worth mentioning that if you go along late on a Friday afternoons there’s usually a complimentary glass of bubbly available as you go in so if that doesn’t enhance the experience and get your weekend off to a good start I don’t know what would!!
I definitely recommend making the trip to Bermondsey, it isn’t far on foot from other attractions like the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, and about a 15 minute walk from Tate Modern, or Southwark and Borough Market as well so you could easily combine visits to more than one [ok, maybe not the Tower as well!]
This is one of the most recent exhibitions to open at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and it’s a very thought-provoking one exploring the relationship between man, fashion and the natural world. It’s divided into the now familiar format of the historic element downstairs with the larger more modern and forward-looking section upstairs.
This works well because there are displays containing beautifully conserved clothing and accessories dating as far back as the 1600s alongside helpful and fascinating short films and information about the origins and manufacture of textiles using both traditional sources such as cotton, flax, silk and wool but also the more unusual such as pineapple fibre.
The items chosen for display demonstrate both the influence of natural subjects in the design-primarily plants and animals, and the effects of textile production on society as a whole. Cotton and wool for example were a huge part of the success of the UK for hundreds of years and made fortunes for a relatively few people but at vast human suffering for many in the form of slavery, overwork, terrible working conditions and resultant illness. Added to this was the decimation of animal and bird populations to supply the demands of the burgeoning fashion industry with feathers, fur, tortoiseshell, whalebone etc and you have a some uncomfortable viewing.
These poor little hummingbirds became fashionable earrings after Empress Eugenie wore a pair
over 5000 beetle carapaces where embroidered onto this Victorian gown.
The origins of the RSPB in the UK started towards the end of the 19th Century when Governments around Europe became concerned for the welfare of bird populations brought to the point of extinction in places.
Ostrich feathers were extremely popular on evening gowns and fans, this little hat is labelled as being the ‘improved starling’ hat with it’s printed feather decoration, the natural beauty of the feathers not being quite good enough presumably?
Seal populations were hugely reduced by the desire for seal fur to make or line coats, muffs and hats, as were whales for their flexible bones which were used in corsets, amongst other things. And then there’s ivory for buttons, umbrella handles and hair decorations, the list goes on…
New resources such as rubber found uses for footwear and to give elasticity to things like stockings and mens braces.
Not everything is doom and gloom in the exhibition, there are some stunning pieces of embroidery and garments which are a visual delight. One of my favourites was an Eighteenth century man’s waistcoat embroidered with Macaque monkeys.
Floral motifs are a perennial favourite both as woven cloth and as embroidered fabric.
I was surprised to discover that using pineapple fibre to make fabric has been around for a couple of hundred years, especially given they were such expensive fruit in their own right.
This evening gown uses pineapple fibre fabric, and the handkerchief is cotton embroidered with pineapple-fibre thread.
Moving upstairs you will discover garments by designers keen to explore and embrace new textiles and technology. Stella McCartney is a well-known exponent of these with her refusal to use any animal-based product and there are some interesting examples of faux leather being made from the waste by-products of the winemaking industry, and ‘leather’ made from a type of mushroom protein! [Incidentally the episode of Desert Island Discs featuring Stella McCartney is very enjoyable and she talks about her use of ethical fabrics and textiles during it] Extraordinary stuff and virtually indistinguishable from real leather. These are ‘designer’ products though so I have no idea of the cost but like any new technology it has to start somewhere and will hopefully filter down eventually to be more affordable.
There were other examples of flora and fauna in the textile design including my favourite Alexander McQueen with a reptile-inspired dress from his Plato’s Atlantis collection.
There is plenty of information and several films which go into greater depth about the effects not only of over-consumption of textiles but also the damage it’s production does to the planet and the workers. Denim, and therefore jeans, for example if the most water-wasteful and polluting of any fabric being produced, we have to address this fact and soon. I’ll be honest and say that I was flagging a little by this time, absolutely not through boredom, far from it, but from information overload. If this is your primary interest in visiting this exhibition then go straight upstairs because there’s so much fascinating, often shocking, but ultimately encouraging information to explore.
Also, did you know that Velcro got invented because a Swiss scientist Georges de Mestral noticed while walking in the Jura during the 1940’s that burrs from plants were clinging to his clothes and his dog’s fur so he investigated further and found they were tiny little hooks. Eventually this discovery became the basis for the product we know today!
Up-cycling is another area that’s looked into, reusing textiles be it unwanted clothes or end-of-line products like ribbon to make new products. Refashioning is not new but it fell out of favour, now it’s making a return.
I could go on, adding more photos of everything but I urge you, if you get the opportunity, to go for yourself and see this exhibition. If you’re interested in fashion and clothing it will really open your eyes to some of the facts about it’s production which you might not be aware of and make you think about how we can improve the situation by our own consumption of goods.
Vivienne Westwood is a leading advocate of choosing fashion wisely, her motto being Buy Less and Buy Well, in other words buy the best you can afford because it’s more likely to have been ethically made from better materials and will last you longer. I know personally I can’t always manage this but by making my own clothes most of the time and wearing them frequently is making a start.
Fashioned from Nature is on at the V&A until next January 27th 2019. I’ve not been sponsored to write this piece, I have my own membership which I use frequently!
I’ve been to this event once before, which you can read about here, and I found it so fascinating that when I heard there was another one coming up I booked myself onto it. That date should have been in March…then the snows came! No one could get there so it got postponed to April 20th, what we couldn’t have predicted was that from snow we went to it being the hottest April day since Domesday or something…
Fortunately Amy and Teresa could both get there too, and Claire-Louise who I hadn’t met before so I was really looking forward to it. Non-Londoner Amy got a bit lost coming out of the station (London Bridge is in the midst of major refurbishments so follow the exit for the Shard if you decide to go to the FTM then turn left at the base of the Shard and follow the signs) but only missed a minute or two.
When you book an event at the FTM the price includes entrance to their current exhibition which this time is the evolution of the T-shirt as a communicative tool. This finishes on May 6th though, the next show will be the designs of Orla Kiely which should also be very interesting.
Because I’ve been once before some of the dresses I’d seen previously but no matter because curator Dennis Nothdruft kindly made sure there were quite a number that were different. The FTM has a collection of couture garments in it’s archive, many of which were donated by one lady and cover a period of 30-40 years. What is interesting to see is how the garments were altered over time so that she could continue to wear them. Couture garments generally have wider seam allowances so that they can be let out, or taken in, as required. Hems were often raised or lowered too as fashion, or age, dictated. It’s also interesting that the insides of many of the garments pre-1960’s aren’t lined, the seams are all whip stitched by hand instead. Teresa worked at David and Elizabeth Emmanuel early in her career and the clientele actually expected to see the insides of the clothes so that they knew they were all hand-made and finished. Nowadays we expect quality clothing, especially high-end, to be lined and all boning, zips etc to be invisible. This is because if you’re not going to pay skilled staff to hand-finish every seam then they need to be covered up instead, hence the linings. Thank you Teresa, that’s something I had never realised or considered before.
This beautiful striped organza dress was made by Christian Dior exclusively for the Elizabeth Arden boutique in New York.
This unusual dress by Irish designer Sybil Connolly. She was renowned for her use of Irish textiles and this dress is a particularly good example of her signature finely pleated handkerchief linen. It is made of many metres of fabric all folded into tiny pleats which are then securely stitched onto a backing fabric so that they can’t move.
This acid-yellow coat is by Bellville Sassoon from 1972, it’s probably intended as an evening coat and personally I think it’s more like a costume….The Mikado perhaps?
This Belville Sassoon number from the late Eighties reminded me so much of the dresses I used to make when I worked at David Fielden straight out of college. Lots of ruched fabric and fluffy tulle skirts. This is a very pretty warp-printed silk taffeta, I wish I’d had a £ for every huge bow I cut during that era, I’d have a enough for a holiday in the sun!!
This short dress is much more recent and is by Alber Elbaz for Lanvin. It’s an extremely ‘deconstructed’ dress with a unevenly pleated silk tulle front and a fine wool jersey back. The whole thing is encircled by ties which actually hold all the pleats in position-I went to ‘sort out’ those side pleats on the right but they were all sewn like that!
This confection of chiffon and beaded embroidery could only be Versace! It’s the ultimate patchwork project that’s for sure.
This is just a selection of the outfits we saw, there were probably over a dozen in all. It’s so interesting to see how couture and high end garments have changed over the decades. We all expect clothing to be lined for example and lots of these weren’t, they were beautifully hand finished undoubtedly but there was no sign of an overlocker! In fact, on one organza cocktail dress the seam edges were left raw because that was actually the least visible finish, and these dresses would never go in the washing machine anyway, the tiny hems on organza and chiffon were all minutely hand-rolled. There were SO many hooks and eyes too but if you can afford couture then you can definitely afford a ladies maid to do them all up for you.
So, definitely a fun thing to do, especially with sewing friends as there is lots to look at and techniques to store away in a corner of your brain that might come in handy one day. I expect the next one will be in the Autumn so check the website for details. Incidentally Teresa will be teaching how to drape and model on the stand at FTM in June so if that’s something you’re interested in the trying she’s a fantastic person to learn from.
….and to round off the afternoon we went to the pub! Lot’s more sewing talk and gossip over a cheeky Aperol Spritz before we headed our separate ways. Such a lovely day, thank you ladies.