Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  October 31, 2016

Review: A History of Fashion in 100 Objects at the Fashion Museum Bath

A few years ago I was working in an archive, slipping old papers out of their original files and into acid-free folders, and replacing their metal fastenings with plastic clips. As I worked, I reflected that the papers would be kept for posterity in a cooled storage room, while their files and fastenings would simply go in the bin. Why were the papers worth keeping but not their housings? Was I depriving stationery historians of original materials?  This question of how we determine the historical value of an object occurred to me again recently when I visited the Fashion Museum Bath’s current exhibition, A History of Fashion in 100 Objects. Running until 1 January 2019, the exhibition features one hundred ‘star objects’ from the Museum’s collection, dating from 1600 up to the present day.  In the last few years the ‘100 objects’ format has become a popular way of presenting history, and I can see why the Fashion Museum has adopted it too. It’s a brilliant way to showcase the richness of their collection without being restricted to a narrow theme, and displaying beautiful garments from several centuries ensures a wide appeal. As I walked around A History of Fashion in 100 Objects, I felt that the sensitivity and care which with the exhibition has been put together elevates this seemingly simple format into a fascinating visitor experience, one which illuminates the main developments in Western fashion since the 17th century while also encouraging reflection on curatorial processes.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically, beginning with a man’s shirt from 1600 and closing with recent winners from the Fashion Museum’s annual Dress of the Year Award. The first few cases tempt the visitor in with glorious decoration and colour, including an intricately embroidered jacket and a vivid lime-green printed dress from the 1700s.  As the exhibition progresses, the selection criteria for the objects diversifies and while not all of the garments are as decorative as the first few, they all have something fascinating about them. A few of the objects on display have been chosen because they represent influential designers such as Charles Worth, or landmark moments in fashion like a chic black suit from Dior's original New Look collection. Some objects bear the imprint of global politics, like a 1940s pink and black dress made partly from blackout fabric. Others are featured because of who owned them, including a 1912 parasol – unassuming in itself - which once belonged to the suffragette Mary Blathwayt. There are fashion icons such as a 1920s cloche hat, as well as less well-known styles like an 1870s Dolman (a cross between a cape and a coat). A History of Fashion in 100 Objects is a wonderful illustration of the many different ways in which historical clothing can be interesting, whether it's a garment's provenance, designer, style, or construction technique which makes it special.

The great strength of A History of Fashion in 100 Objects is its skilful combination of show-stopping garments with a subtle understanding of the gradual evolution of style. For me the most interesting objects were those which show fashion in transition, such as the late 18th century dress which illustrates the move towards lighter tones while retaining a similar structured shape to an earlier, darker dress on display. There are also pieces which represent a ‘last flowering’ of a style or technique, including a white collar which was handmade at a time when most collars were being manufactured by machines. Similarly a 1830s man’s suit on display shows that even after the heyday of Beau Brummel some men still favoured dandy-style looks. The inclusion of interim fashions and pieces that are not typical of their time reminds visitors that the history of fashion is a flux of trends and anomalies; of slow shifts and startling new looks, enduring classics and forgotten styles. There are plenty of exquisite garments in A History of Fashion in 100 Objects to please seasoned dress historians, or those familiar with the main developments in fashion. I thought however that this exhibition would be especially valuable for aspiring fashion curators, those learning to tell the stories of history through the objects which have been left behind.

Elizabeth Francis, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016. 

  • Embroidered woman’s waistcoat, 1700s. Courtesy of the Fashion Museum, Bath.
  • Cream slub silk halter neck dress, Christian Dior, c.1954.Courtesy of the Fashion Museum, Bath.
  • Pink and blue embroidered ‘cut-off ballgown’ with black trousers, Raf Simons. For the House of Dior. Chosen as Dress of the Year 2012 by Van