Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  July 17, 2017

Fashion History at the National Museum of Scotland

Rachel Sayers

Whenever I go travelling I like to visit museums, particularly museums that have large displays of historic fashion and textiles. A few months ago I was in Edinburgh visiting a friend and we decided to check out the newly re-opened fashion gallery of the National Museum of Scotland. The museum is centrally located, free and offers a plethora of fashion, history, art, natural sciences and more to keep everyone and anyone happy for hours.

   I was particularly excited about visiting the fashion gallery as I’d read great reviews of the new space both online and in print. The gallery is called ‘Fashion and Style’ and offers the visitor a journey through fashion history from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. The gallery is situated on the first floor and has large, well-lit display cases depicting all manner of objects from the bustle to the mini-skirt. There are informative exhibition labels, vignettes, films and explanatory shorts from conservators on the history and conservation of the museum’s fashion and textile collection.

   Key pieces of the collection are given their own display case, such as the mantua gown pictured, for people to have a 360-degree view of choice pieces. This is an effective method of display as it enables the viewer to walk right around the gown querying how women got into these dresses, how they sat or walked. To the side of the display case housing the mantua gown there is an interactive panel which explains in detail how the wearer would get into such a large dress and how it was conserved for display in the gallery. Small touches like this enhance and explain fashion history for those with little or no knowledge of dress history.

  There is strong emphasis on silhouette, form and accessories throughout the different time periods. Bustles, corsets, panniers etc. are displayed next to their modern equivalent of bum pads, spandex and waist trainers to let the viewer know that fashion really hasn’t changed all that much; we’ve just adapted the materials we use to morph, sculpt and corrupt the female form.  There are large hats, hat boxes, advertisements, handbags and fans to show how women (and men) would complement their outfit with matching accessories and how marketing was used to sell clothing to our forbearers.

     Additionally, there is a central focus on Scottish fashion and the influence Scottish fashion has had on world fashion. This is most notable throughout the gallery exhibition panels, which explain how tartan has influenced fashion ever since the ‘Tartan Craze’ of the mid-Victorian era when tartan became fashionable again after many years of decline. Designers featured in the fashion gallery include Marion Donaldson, Jean Muir and Pringle of Scotland to show that Scotland is on the world stage of fashion.

   There is a large section dedicated to the Jean Muir archive with fashion designs, toiles, mannequins, marketing and haberdashery material as well as a selection of Jean Muir clothes. I personally don’t collect Jean Muir but after seeing her clothes in the fashion gallery I will be adding her to my list of vintage fashion must-haves and raiding my mum’s wardrobe for her Jean Muir dresses from the 1980s! If you’re in Edinburgh I’d highly recommend a visit to the fashion gallery of the National Museum of Scotland – sure to appeal to any fashion enthusiast.

  • Court mantua dress, 1770s-1780s, National Museum of Scotland. © Rachel Sayers.
  • Selection of late 18th century men and women’s clothing, National Museum of Scotland. © Rachel Sayers.
  • Selection of 19th, 20th and 21st century underwear and support garments, National Museum of Scotland. © Rachel Sayers.
  • Jean Lanvin dresses, 1920s. National Museum of Scotland. © Rachel Sayers.
  • Selection of haberdashery and drawing material from the Jean Muir archive. National Museum of Scotland. © Rachel Sayers.