Exhibition Review: The Fashion Galleries (Room 40) at the V&A
Re-opened on 19 May 2012, after an eighteen-month-long closure, the V&A’s fashion galleries have been re-painted and re-organized, although the changes are not as radical as the 1962 or 1983 renovations. The 1980s dark wood panelling has been removed in favour of a bright white paint; the dome has been opened up to view, and the mezzanine designed by Peter Thornton to fill the cavernous space in the sixties has been restored by the firm 6a Architects as an open exhibition area, used as part of the special exhibition display. The gallery looks brighter and has gained a ubiquitous gallery-specific shop kiosk at the exit.
The aquarium-style permanent exhibition cases remain on the outer walls of the gallery, and are still largely organized chronologically. The interiors have been dramatically changed, however: the vacant-eyed grey 1980s mannequins are gone completely, replaced entirely by headless figures, some of which are posed with accessories, though they do not ‘interact’ with one another. The curators and designers have chosen to return to the 1960s style of filling the dress displays with contextual pieces from the museum’s collection, including furniture, textiles, fashion prints, and paintings. There is a clever use of screens throughout, with mirrored panels placed strategically to reflect the backs of dresses; other panels feature period designs for textiles or wallpaper.
The re-design team, led by Senior Fashion Curator Claire Wilcox, clearly looked at the history of the gallery before making their decisions, as shades of past displays haunt the gallery. A 1790s riding habit, for example, formed the nucleus of the present collection when it was given to the Museum by Harrods department store in 1913; it remained on display through the 1940s, and has now returned to the gallery. American Vogue editor Diana Vreeland’s famous black sequined Chanel pantsuit, collected for the V&A by photographer Cecil Beaton, is featured alongside the Marcel Breuer-designed chaise in which the model wearing it was photographed for the 1971 Fashion: An Anthology catalogue. The Beaton exhibition itself is musealized in the form of a stylized wire mannequin head used in the show, and now displayed alongside Surrealist fashion in the 1930s case. The star piece of the 2007-2008 Golden Age of Couture exhibition, Dior’s ‘Zemire’ gown is displayed alongside other Dior pieces, and its remarkable rediscovery is explained. These attempts to participate in the wider trend to display the museum’s own history and demonstrate the epistemology of fashion history that has resulted from the V&A’s display choices are laudable, but would probably only be obvious to a visitor very familiar with the Museum’s history.
One may quibble with some aspects of the new exhibition. The 1960s section feels empty, and most of the cases for the later twentieth century have significantly less contextual objects than those that predate it. The titles for the cases seem arbitrary, too – stylistic statements such as ‘Deconstructing Fashion’ for the 1980s case are arguable; although the V&A’s remit is to collect cutting-edge design, the ‘Power Suit’ which has become iconic of the broad-shouldered, ambitious 1980s is the antithesis of the Japanese avant-garde design on display, and could be said to be extremely constructed. However, these omissions may be remedied as objects are rotated on and off display.
The permanent exhibition cases of Gallery 40 surround an inner core display area, used for temporary exhibitions. The opening show, on until 6 January 2013, is Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950. The semi-circular niches of the gallery’s dome are used as projection spaces for photographs of selected ballgowns by photographer David Hughes. The ballgowns are organized by colour, though the gallery text panels suggest a more thoughtful thematic division. However, there is a disconnect between the stated curatorial objectives and the gallery’s design: while the text focuses on the named, individual consumers of couture, and the specific occasions on which the gowns were worn, the mannequins reflect the impossible figures of emaciated supermodels, with occasionally awkward results for dresses that are large in the bust or waist. The individual is instead transposed to a set piece seemingly inspired by 1950s Vogue, with enlarged cut-outs of mirror frames, divans, and even dogs as props. The two-dimensional theme continues upstairs where mannequins are grouped under dimensional silhouette chandeliers (one mannequin is even seated on one).
Excellent views are afforded of this exhibition from the ironwork gallery, whose grilles and scrolls visually echo the elaborate light fixtures. Dance-step footprints appear on the floor to suggest movement, and one mannequin in each of the three groupings of contemporary evening wear rotates slowly. This turntable effect, as well as the use of eye-masks for some mannequins once again recalls the display innovations of the 1971 Cecil Beaton exhibition designer, Michael Haynes. Oversize pearls mask the plinths on which the otherwise unadorned mannequins stand, and also cleverly serve to block access to the open display. More might have been made of the staircase to the mezzanine area, in that it is often a key architectural feature of a couture house or a grand mansion - as seen in the video of Norman Hartnell models at Highclere Castle (now popularly known as television’s Downton Abbey), screened on a loop in the downstairs section.
The choice of ballgowns for the subject of the re-opening exhibition reflects the general atmosphere of the galleries: attractive and populist. The Costume Society’s commentators on the last major renovation of the V&A’s Gallery 40 in 1983 noted the change of terminology from ‘Costume Court’ to ‘Dress Collection’; today, the same galleries are home to ‘fashion’, and the name change reflects the increasing value of clothing in the Museum’s priorities. Although the steady stream of fashion-bound visitors making their way through the long corridor of Asian sculpture demonstrates their popularity, it remains unclear who the primary audience for the galleries is envisioned to be: it would take an expert to recognize the visual references of the display, yet the content does not break any new scholarly ground. Nevertheless, the grandeur and exuberance of the fashions on display will ultimately win over any critics.
School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester