Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, Reviews  |  July 28, 2015

Fashion and Museums in 2015: a Review of Three London Exhibitions

At the beginning of May I spent two days in London visiting a number of exhibitions, all of which included fashion and textiles in some way. Here I will review, and compare, three of them: focusing particularly on the distinctive ways in which fashion can be interpreted and presented by different cultural institutions. The exhibitions are Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A, Fashion on the Ration at the Imperial War Museum, and Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern.

I started with Sonia Delaunay; a rich and varied retrospective featuring both fine and applied arts, and a wonderful celebration of one woman's creative output. Within the hallowed, white walls of the Tate Modern, Delaunay's dress and textile designs were presented in the same way as painting or sculpture, with little contextual information or history, but to be celebrated for their design and artistic prowess. The bold geometric patterns of her famous simultané style sung out against the bright white gallery walls, but the display style did not appear to echo the artists own aesthetic; a system of bright contrasting colour, pattern and form. It was also as a shame that not all garments were shown on mannequins, as it was not always easy to understand their true shape and style.

In terms of exhibition style, Savage Beauty could not be more different. This exhibition, a groundbreaking feat of curation from Claire Wilcox, is truly immersive; the visitor is pulled into the world and the mind of McQueen, each room telling a different story. From mannequins, to floor coverings, to music, lighting, and the clothes themselves; the variety of textures, colours and sensations consumes the visitor and reflects the drama of McQueen’s notorious catwalk shows. Like the Delauney exhibition, the clothes are celebrated as works of art, but the theatrical settings are as much as part of the exhibition experience as the garments themselves. Though the main text panels introducing each space are key to understanding the flow of the exhibition, words are not used extensively to tell the story of each individual garment; it is a more sensory, visual language that dominates.

Fashion on the Ration takes a far more conventional museum approach to the interpretation of objects, and the exhibition design falls somewhere between the two other displays. The space is relatively simple with colour-blocked walls and relevant imagery to provide context, such as World War Two recruitment posters. This exhibition, and the wonderful objects it includes, is brought to life not through reverent white space or dramatic set design; the extensive labels accompanying each and every artefact tell a powerful, compelling, and highly emotive story. Individual social histories, and a broader contextual narrative, define the key factors that affected fashion during the Second World War, but emphasizing the impact on individual lives by using letters, oral history recordings and photographs. Some of the objects are fascinating for the sheer resourcefulness of their makers, while others evoke a fierce sense of national and personal pride.

There are obvious questions one may ask, when considering the role of costume in each of these exhibitions: does contemporary fashion belong in a museum dedicated to history and design? Do commercial textile designs of the early twentieth century belong in a modern art gallery? And does civilian clothing belong in a museum of war? As someone who studies dress on a daily basis I would argue yes to all; I believe costume can be celebrated simultaneously for its artistic merit, its dramatic power and its story telling capabilities, and that explains why these exhibitions have proved very popular. There are currently many other exhibitions around the UK featuring costume, and hopefully these three blockbusters will show how fashion can be used to successfully engage and excite the museum audience.

Lucie Whitmore, Costume Society Ambassador 2015

  • ARP at Kingston House, London, c.1940 © Imperial War Museum, London
  • Sonia Delaunay Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) 1925. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Pracusa 2014083
  • Savage Beauty: Inside the exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London