50 fabulous years of Zandra Rhodes at FTM

I thought I’d write a quick review of a newly-opened show at the Fashion & Textiles Museum in London in case you’re thinking of paying a visit to the city.

Zandra Rhodes is something of a one-off in the fashion industry. She has always ploughed her own unique furrow by being primarily a textile designer who then uses her beautiful fabrics to create exotic garments. They are not for the faint-hearted because they are frequently bright colours and intricate patterns but over the decades they have been worn by many high-profile personalities including Princess Anne in her engagement photos, and Princess Diana wore gowns by Zandra Rhodes to many events. Actress Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis were photographed wearing the gowns and, more recently, designers Anna Sui and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino have commissioned her to design original textile prints for their own collections.

I was first aware of Zandra Rhodes while I was still at school when her punk-inspired collection of 1977 hit the headlines. Punk clothing was seen as something a bit scuzzy and tatty but her evening gowns were made in luxurious jersey fabrics adorned with rips and tears that were accessorised with chains and zips. Later on while I was a young student taking a one year art foundation course at college her use of striking colours really caught my eye.

The new exhibition features at least one look from every year of Zandra Rhodes’ fifty year career so there are many beautiful garments to see. One of the striking features of many of them is the embellishments. The signature dipped or pointed hems are frequently finished with tiny seed pearls or sequins, as are necklines or sleeves. A favourite fabric is silk chiffon which is notoriously difficult to work with, satin and velvet appear too.

a close up of the hand-embellishments used to trim hems
you’re greeted by a cavalcade of colourful gowns as you enter the main exhibition space, each outfit has its year of creation in front.
Early outfits already feature Zandra’s signature squiggles.

As I’ve said in other reviews before the FTM isn’t a huge space so you get the chance to see the exhibits at very close hand and often from different angles. I’ve shared lots of my photos here although they aren’t in chronological order.

Vibrant pinks and oranges are recurring colours although more subtle shades and blacks and blues do make regular appearances too
more recent dresses from the 2000s
‘sparkling sequin’ collection from 2008
this dress ‘Renaissance/Gold’ dress from 1981 was modelled by Diana Ross in a photo by Richard Avedon.

Because I’d bought a ticket for a meet-and-greet prior to the official opening of the exhibition we also had the chance to chat with Zandra Rhodes and get copies of the new book signed by her.

You might have noticed that I have pink hair (well, a pink fringe at any rate) I always admired Zandra’s pink hair but I always imagined there was someone (who?) or something (what?) that prevented me doing it. Eventually, about 4 years ago, I did it, and I’ve realised it was the subliminal influence of Zandra that had planted the idea. When I finally got the opportunity to chat to her I told her as much, which she seemed chuffed about, and we swapped pink-hair-dyeing tips!

Zandra seems entertained by my hair-dye story!
and of course she signed in bright pink marker pen
I can’t match the vibrancy of her shade of pink though
Elizabeth and I really enjoyed our encounter with Zandra and I so admire that even in her late seventies she still fully embraces and inhabits her own look.

Also, upstairs in the exhibition space, you can see how the printing process works. The designs are screen printed using huge frames and each colour in the design has its own screen. This means that each print run could have quite a few stages to the process depending on the number of colours.

The prints are meticulously placed on the fabric so as to utilise as much as possible and avoid unnecessary wastage too. There is film to watch too so you can see the exactly how carefully the prints are created by Zandra’s team. The finished fabrics are then passed to the atelier team of expert pattern cutters and sample makers who turn them into finished garments for each collection.

If you’re interested in seeing the work of a British fashion icon close up, and in the museum and gallery space which she herself originally founded incidentally, then get along there now. The show is on until January 26th (closed on Mondays) As a bonus, in a separate small gallery space, there is also a Norman Hartnell exhibition too with quite a few of his designs on display. If it’s a grey day in London it’s bound to cheer you up!

Until next time,

Sue

Inside Couture at the Fashion & Textiles Museum, London.

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.

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Vintage Chanel

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These two little ‘flaps’ are actually weights which tuck inside the wearers bra to hold the V neck securely but invisibly in place-very clever!

 

 

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Love the beautiful draped back with integral rose on this chic crepe cocktail dress by Guy Laroche, that’s a horizontal bust dart you can see in the lining and it’s not something we see often these days.

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The rouleau bow detail is padded, a simple detail to copy.

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There was a zip in the lining AND a zip in the outer dress so that both fitted properly to give the desired effect to the deeply draped back.

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finely-pleated Sybil Connolly Irish linen gown

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All the edges are neatly bound

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The cuffs have short zips so that they fit snugly to the wrist.

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Internal stitching holding all the pleats in position.

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!

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This daring dress is by Christian Lacroix who no longer produces couture garments. There are lots of different elements going on and undoubtedly it looks far better on a body than the hanger.

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Alec Wek in the dress from the Autumn 2000 collection

 

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.

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Teresa, Claire-Louise, Amy and me

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.

Happy Sewing,

Sue