Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  May 19, 2019

Relishing Rotten Textiles

By Kate Clive-Powell 

Tucked away on a side street in Bloomsbury is an evocative new exhibition featuring clothes from The Contemporary Wardrobe Collection. ‘Requiem: Material/Memory’ explores the ability of clothing to capture and trigger memories.  As a textile conservator myself I found this exhibition interesting as the garments highlight and celebrate the wear and degradation of clothing; the antithesis to the  blockbuster fashion exhibition, where textile degradation is slowed and often cleverly disguised by conservators.

Torn, moth-eaten, stained, tarnished and peeling, the exhibits show evidence of history and use. Curator, Cyana Madsen, states that this is probably, ‘the last hurrah for these objects.’ As part of The Contemporary Wardrobe Collection these clothes would have been hired out for film, TV and Fashion shoots. This specialist hire company has been supplying vintage street fashion, couture items and accessories to these industries for over 40 years. The collection holds over twenty thousand garments, principally dating from 1945 to the present, and focuses on British and American youth movements and cult fashions.

For a more in-depth insight to the exhibition curator, Cyana Madsen, answers a few questions about ‘Requiem: Material/Memory’…

(K C-P) What are the main ideas you are trying to communicate through the display?

(C M) This exhibition explores the idea that our memories and experience live on in our worn clothing after we are parted from them. By displaying clothing with significant and specific signs of wear, I want to engage the visitor in questioning not only what the life may have been of these particular garments, but engaging with recollection of signs of wear in their own clothing.

In parallel, the exhibition considers the truth and transmutable nature of memory, how the veracity of recollection can shift with time and circumstance (and who is doing the remembering!). I also wanted to explore the transversal nature of memory: how collective memories are shared, and the common threads that can be found in recollections. Finally, the exhibition looks at the tangibility of memory in material items, particularly with clothing, which can be so intimate to the body and self of the wearer and can trigger such sensory, visceral responses within us.


(K C-P) Do you know anything about the provenance of any of the garments?

The provenance for many of these garments has been lost over the years, prior to their acquisition by The Contemporary Wardrobe Collection. The notable exceptions to this are the Turnbull & Asser shirt which once belonged to artist and self-identified dandy, Sebastian Horsley, and the pair of unworn heels owned by Lady Phyllis Sopwith, the wife of aviation pioneer Sir Thomas Sopwith and adventurer in her own right. Lady Sopwith was timekeeper on his yacht during the 1934 America’s Cup race.

Where possible, the provenance has been identified on the object labels. Ultimately, the notion that the original life and meaning of the garments remains in the stains and holes is core to the exhibition.


(K C-P) Could you talk a bit about the soundscape?

The soundscape was designed and recorded in a collaboration between myself and composer Jonah Falco. I wanted to create something spectral, which was hard to pin down and had a slightly ephemeral feel - an aural interpretation of these garments and their signs of wear and memories at large. Jonah and I recorded the exhibition garments in situ at The Horse Hospital, being touched, fastened and manipulated in space as they could have been during their ‘life’, and then distorted the audio in post-production.

'Requiem: Material/Memory' runs from Saturday 4th May – Saturday 25th May 2019, Mon - Sat, 12-6pm at The Horse Hospital, Bloomsbury. www.thehorsehospital.com

  • Part of the Display
  • Detail of Worn & Stained Pocket from Skirt on Display
  • Shoes Worn by Lady Phyllis Sopwith
  • Torn Shirt Worn by Artist Sebastian Horsley