Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  July 8, 2016

The Importance of Space to Performance Costume Collections

Deep in the stores of the Victoria and Albert Museum, anonymous white-cloaked forms wait quietly in the dark. Each one hides a gorgeous secret in its unassuming folds: a squashy padded tunic in jewel-coloured velvet, a tailored suit in gleaming gold fabric, or a shimmering sequinned mini-dress. It could be a garment fit for a king or a fairy, a rock star or a pantomime dame.

When working for the V&A's Theatre and Performance Department this was how I usually encountered their costume collections, as I gently pulled bags from the racks and unwrapped their treasures for measurement or study. I started working at the V&A the week before the opening of the Clothworkers’ Centre, the Museum’s dedicated study space for dress and textiles. This area is primarily for the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department but is also used by the Theatre and Performance Department to make their costumes available to researchers. I was interested to see how this new space opened up parts of the dress and costume collections which might never have been seen before, the objects which weren’t suitable for viewing in the previous study rooms and may not ever have been selected for exhibition or loan. The Clothworkers’ Centre not only allows more of the collections to be studied but also gives researchers the opportunity to examine the inside of garments and look very closely at small details, enabling the objects to become known in a different way. Seeing how the Centre is used made me realise that a practical decision like introducing a new space can have an important intellectual impact, influencing what is included in individuals’ research and eventually affecting the body of knowledge we have about a subject.  I began to think about the other spaces in which the V&A's Theatre and Performance Department gives the public access to its costumes, and the ways in which space contributes to our experience of such historical garments.

The V&A’s Theatre and Performance Department faces the curious challenge of trying to archive ephemeral experiences. While it’s impossible (even with the brilliant National Video Archive of Performance) to completely capture a live performance, it is possible to convey something of it through the objects which are left behind. Costumes can be particularly evocative, and they are often the closest we can come to seeing the performer standing before us. When I was at the V&A it was interesting to observe that the cultural and historical importance of the Museum's performance costumes is defined slightly differently from that of its fashion collections. In the V&A’s Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department the emphasis is generally more on collecting garments which exemplify a particular technique or aesthetic, rather than on who wore it originally and where. The Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department tends to look for the best examples of styles and methods, whereas in Theatre and Performance, the garments' significance is more often rooted in the particular history of each object. It matters that this is the exact jumpsuit (fig.1) worn by Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour, or that this was the actual doublet and hose (fig.2) worn by Henry Irving in Much Ado About Nothing in 1882. Unlike the V&A's fashion collections, the Theatre and Performance costumes are frequently associated with the experience of seeing a specific person in a specific place, often under stage lighting and from a distance. The original space associated with the object becomes part of what makes it of interest to the museum and its visitors. When exhibiting its theatre and performance costumes in the galleries, I wondered how far the V&A seeks to reflect – even to recreate - the space in which they would have been experienced originally.
To explore this question I spoke with the V&A’s Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance, Simon Sladen, who notes that ‘really it depends on the story or narrative you’re trying to weave. The joy of having our cases is that you can see the costumes in a good light, which allows you to properly scrutinise them. It’s important to have that element of, “this is a piece of design”, as well as being an object which evokes a particular performance.’ A gallery space can enable a different relationship between garment and viewer from that offered by a performance space, something which is perhaps especially important when displaying costumes from recent or ongoing productions. As Sladen says: ‘in the theatre you’re never that near to a costume on the stage. In the Theatre and Performance Galleries, you’re almost given backstage access to it.’ Sladen also points out that the Theatre and Performance galleries include representations of the costumes in performance alongside the garments, for example, this outfit (fig.3) given by Coldplay singer Chris Martin is on display in the galleries, accompanied by a photograph of Martin wearing it on stage in 2008. It seems important then for curators of performance costumes to recognise each garment both as a relic of a live event and as a designed object in its own right; to remember that displaying costumes in gallery spaces is not just about creating a shared material experience with audiences of the past, but also about offering new and illuminating perspectives.

Elizabeth Francis, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016.

  • Fig. 1: Sir Mick Jagger's jumpsuit, by Ossie Clark, 1972. Image courtesy of the V&A.
  • Fig. 2: Theatre costume, 1882. Image courtesy of the V&A.
  • Fig.3: Chris Martin's Viva La Vida costume, 2008. Image courtesy of the V&A.