Friday, 3 August 2012

Research Point: V&A Fashion permanent exhibition

Victoria & Albert Museum - Fashion Department - Permanent Exhibition


Theme - The development of fashion in the last 200 years.

Display - Behind glass (of course, although this was disappointing as of course I wanted to touch everything). Each case contained clothes and furniture and some little items from one specific period of time.  This gave some information about style in other art forms at the time. In each case there was a screen with a magnified detail of pattern from one of the exhibits, which compensated a little for the distance the glass enforced.

Lighting - The hall itself was approximately circular, with the path between the cases being a ring shape. The ceiling was very high (2 or 3 stories) and the floor mosaic, making it quite a loud environment. The lighting was dim, except inside the cases, and there it was subtle, diffuse light, making it easy to see the exhibits clearly without straining. Presumably the dimness of the light was intended to preserve the exhibits.

Explanation - While there was a summary of the movements in each period, under an explainatory general title eg the pursuit of perfection in the 1950s section, the exhibits themselves only had the basic museum cataloguing details. I would have liked to know much more about them.

Visual - It was more stimulating than it might have been if the clothes had been exhibited on their own. I thought the context could have been made more overt, with other references to artistic movements during the period.

Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga A/W 2004

This outfit was made for Balenciaga's designer collection for Autumn/ Winter 2004.
It has a fitted tunic and skirt, and knitted wool details over the arm and upper chest and shoulders. The overall look is 'female street warrior', fitted to the shape of the body, flexible and firm, celebrating freedom of movement without excess bulk.

The knitted bits are striped ridges, black and white, referring to padded armour present for practical reasons, and to the ropes of an officer's dress uniform without being bulky or getting in the way. The colour and pattern on the clothes seem to refer to the colours and patterns of ceremonial military uniforms while actually being the colours and patterns of graffiti. It isn't camouflage in the usual sense of the word, but could be in a sense camouflage on a busy city street.

I can't really say if this is decorative, expressive, functional or symbolic, because in some ways it seems to be all of these. It refers to tradition - dress uniforms and traditional tailoring; another culture - street and comic culture and the influence of samurai warriors costumes on it (not least by the cut of the hem). It also plays on the rather feminine cut of some 18th century men's uniforms. emphasising the waist and hips. The assymetrical neckline exposes a piece of the neck and shoulder which makes it look vulnerable in contrast to the ridged padding next to it.

I very much like the way it makes you think that the woman wearing it is strong, healthy, active, a free spirit and perhaps a little dangerous. I like the witty and not in your face references. I love the unexpected combination of black and white striped knitting (rather folk) with the spray-paint blurred colours and slickness of the fabric. I don't really like the use of graffiti writing on this haute couture piece of clothing.

Voisin Evening Dress c.1925 Paris
Tangerine silk velvet and gold glass bead fringes.
Exhibited with a large orange ostrich feather fan with shiny black spokes.
In the 'Bright Young things' section dated 1920-1930

The fringes are not really visible in this photo. There are strings of gold glass beads about 2 inches long attached by one end only down the sides of each of the triangular dangling bits of the dress. The effect would be amplification of any movement of the wearer, particularly any twisting movement I expect, with some subtle sounds of the beads clashing and rubbing against each other.

The inspiration may have been from recent developments in visual arts. The colour is bright and sophisticated at the same time. The combination of this colour, the luxury of the silk velvet, and gold makes me think of Klimt. Perhaps Art deco as well. I am not completely sure of the dates of these two. Maybe Klimt could be my next artist for research.

This dress is functional in the sense that it is ideal for dancing the Charleston and other fast-paced dances of the day. Revealing the new relative freedom of the legs. I am interested in the way it does not flatter the top half of the body at all, in fact rather negates the femininity of it, while accentuating the movement of the lower half in a very feminine way. Although on second thoughts they didn't wear supportive undergarments at that period so there would have been a lot of jiggling under the velvet when they danced!

It refers to tradition in its use of fabric and beads that would have been used on evening dresses for the previous 50-100 years. It may refer to other cultures' use of dangling grasses/ leather straps to allow for dancing in ceremonial dress.

I love the texture of the silk velvet combined with the warm soft colour. I like the way the texture of it makes the colour paler around the sides because of the reflection of light. I love the idea of the movement of dancing being exaggerated and celebrated by this dress. I wish I could see it and hear it moving. I like this fringe of gold beads and wonder if I could use this on a wind chime or something similar. I don't personally like the straightness of the bodice, even though this makes the skirt so much more what it is.

Evening Coat 1895-1900
Marshall & Snelgrove
Purple velvet embroidered with cream silk thread and wool velvet
No T.49-1962

Marshall & Snelgrove was a shop in Oxford Street which became part of Debenhams after the first world war when the luxury clothing market shrank. It is in a style that reflects more than one of the artistic movements of the time, combining the luxury and show of hand-embroidered purple velvet with references to the natural and rustic in the flowers and the felt showing through the false slits in the coat.

From a distance it looks almost oriental in the detail of the embroidery and the long stems interrupted at intervals by thin leaves. When you look closer you can see that the florets are attached only in the middle, leaving the petals loose to flop and fold in a naturalistic way. The stems are indicated in back stitch, and the leaves in satin stitch. I was surprised to see felt in the list of materials on the label, and looking more closely saw that the false slits in the velvet surround large areas of felt. This seems to me to be very unusual.

There is a large felt skirt in one of the other showcases, but that is from the Buffalo collection of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren 70 years later. It too refers to the use of more basic and rough fabrics in the countryside. The difference is that in this coat the felt has been decorated all over with a delicate lacy film of thread, contradicting the roughness of the felt, and outlined in large decorative chain stitch.

This is a decorative piece of clothing, although it would also have been very warm. Its design refers to tradition in the luxury fabric and contrasting embroidery, but it seems to me that it also refers to the Arts and Craft movement in the informal design and realistic representation of the flowers, and the apparently more casual style of the sewing. And in the use of felt in a grand evening coat to make the shape and appearance refer to their idea of a medieval style of dress. There may be some reference to this in the shape of the waist and sleeves of the coat too, but I do not know enough about dress designs from that period.

The flower shapes, and the way the petals are sewn on to move with the wind or movement of the person wearing it, appeal to me particularly. I personally think that the felt sections detract from the luxurious glory of the coat and those panels might have been better off made of another luxury fabric.

There were so many other things that interested me in this small permanent collection. I particularly noticed the way silk had been gathered into lines of squashed 3D forms on the bodice of a princess-line evening dress from the 1870s. (How did they do that? I want to try it out.)

And Barbara Hulaniki's 1970s take on the medieval princess dress with trumpet sleeves and tiny covered buttons, all in her dramatic trademark gold and black Art Deco style wave-knitted rayon.

And the paper dresses from the 1960s impressed me with how deliberately designers tried to do things differently during that time. It reminded me of an exhibition of architecture in the USSR - the tried to go back to the drawing board completely, and came up with some strange and sometimes strongly geometrical designs like this.

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