In this week's blog, curator Elaine Uttley gives an update on the Fashion Museum Bath's move to a new home. Having been at the National Trust owned Assembly Rooms since the 1960s, the museum team have been working hard to prepare the collection for the move, which Elaine gives us a behind the scenes insight into.
This month marks sixty years since the Fashion Museum first opened its doors in Bath.
Founded in 1963 as the Museum of Costume, the Fashion Museum Bath has become a cornerstone of the city’s cultural landscape, and one of the world’s great collections of historical and contemporary fashionable dress. Earlier this year, we waved goodbye to our home at the Assembly Rooms and embarked on a major development project to create a new museum and purpose-built collections study centre in the heart of the city. This will give us much needed space to store and display the collection and provide public access to thousands of treasures for study and enjoyment.
The need for bigger premises has always been an ongoing concern for the collection, and the Assembly Rooms are just the most recent chapter in the history of the Museum’s movements. The Fashion Museum first came to Bath in 1963 when Doris Langley Moore – an inspired collector, writer, historian and costume designer - generously gifted her amazing collection of fashionable dress to the city. Mrs Langley Moore was passionate about fashions of the past and her original collection reportedly grew to such an extent that it filled her not so small London house, and she had to move into a flat nearby to carry on with her normal life.
Bath wasn’t the first location for her expanding collection, however. The Museum of Costume, as it was then known, found its first home in 1955 at Eridge Castle in Kent, where Doris Langley Moore pioneered a new style of dress display using realistic mannequins. The Museum of Costume remained at Eridge Castle for three years, and in 1958 was transferred to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton for a special exhibition. Eventually in 1963, the Museum of Costume found a more permanent base and opened in the newly restored Assembly Rooms on 23 May. We’ve been in Bath ever since and became the Fashion Museum in 2007.
Doris Langley Moore estimated that there were 5,000 items in her original collection, and it took two removal lorries to bring them from storage in London to Bath. Today the Fashion Museum houses over 100,000 objects - and growing – and after nearly sixty years at the Assembly Rooms, the curatorial team were tasked with packing up and moving the collection once again.
We planned the move of the collection in three phases, which took place over a six-month period. The first task was to carefully pack and move our archive collections. As well as items of dress and accessories, the Fashion Museum holds significant collections of photographs, drawings, books, magazines and paper-based material. Thousands of records including archives from Parisian couture houses Worth and Paquin and London-based designers David Sassoon and Peter Jensen were safely transported out of the building.
The second phase was a major undertaking and entailed working through each of the thirty-eight individual storage areas where we had been storing objects for the last sixty years. Each item of dress left the Assembly Rooms carefully packed in a storage box or Tyvek garment bag, which we had been able to purchase thanks to our successful Buy-a-Bag fundraising campaign at the end of 2021. A big thank you to everyone who supported this cause. It enabled the team to successfully transfer thousands of garments from rail to rail and set up a new storeroom with relative ease.
The third and final phase took place last November after the doors had closed to the public for the last time at the Assembly Rooms. The curatorial team worked closely with textile conservator Sarah Glenn to take down over 400 objects from our headline display A History of Fashion in 100 Objects and our final exhibition You Choose, a co-creation project which featured objects from the Fashion Museum collection chosen by local people to reflect themselves and what fashion means to them. It was great to hear from individuals and community groups from across the region about which objects they would like to see on display, and this will inform our thinking as we begin to plan and develop the new museum.
Working in the empty galleries and recalling the many memories made during our years at the Assembly Rooms was a poignant moment for the curatorial team. As we carefully undressed mannequins and packed away the richly embroidered Georgian gowns and Regency fashions from the displays, we reminisced about our favourite secret spots – wedding dress corner and a cupboard called Joyce - and told spooky stories about our days in the stores. Everyone agreed that Store 5 was the most likely place to meet a supernatural previous wearer checking to see if we were looking after their clothes properly!
We worked with a fantastic removal company called Harrow Green who ensured that each and every object was safely transported to our new temporary home at the headquarters of luxury glovemakers, Dents. Based in nearby Warminster, it’s an ideal space to store the collection while we wait to move into our new home in the centre of Bath. The high spec building provides the Fashion Museum with a large storage area that meets the high environmental and security standards required for the preservation of a museum collection as well as space for the curatorial team to work.
Established in 1777, Dents is one of the UK’s leading heritage fashion brands with a long tradition of making hand-crafted luxury leather gloves. The firm has supplied handmade gloves to royalty, celebrities and the film industry including King George VI’s Coronation glove in 1937, which was recently re-worn by HM King Charles III at his own Coronation ceremony this May. The Fashion Museum and Dents have a long-standing working relationship as both organisations are involved in the management of the Collection of the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London, which has been on loan to the Fashion Museum since the mid-1980s. We’re enjoying getting to know the team at Dents and love popping into the factory to see their glove-making skills in action.
The Fashion Museum will open at its new home at the Old Post Office in the centre of Bath in four to five years’ time. This is part of Bath & North East Somerset Council’s Milsom Quarter Masterplan, an ambitious 20-year vision to transform the Milsom Quarter area of Bath into a fashion destination for the South-West. The Museum is also partnering with Bath Spa University to create a collections study centre on their Locksbrook campus, to the west of the city centre. Opening in the next three to five years, this will provide a home for the Museum’s extensive collection and will be accessible to the public through special events and study sessions.
During this transition period, the curatorial team are working hard to make sure that some of museum’s most stunning pieces can still be seen and enjoyed. We are continuing our active programme of loans to museums around the world and this year will see Fashion Museum objects go on display in major exhibitions across the UK as well as in Paris, Zurich and Mumbai.
The Fashion Museum’s incredibly rare Silver Tissue Dress, worn to the court of Charles II, features alongside contemporary gowns worn by Lizzo and Lady Gaga in Crown to Couture, now open at Kensington Palace; a beautiful 1760s court mantua and other eighteenth century treasures are currently centre stage at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace in Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians; exquisitely embroidered early twentieth century gowns worn by the Vicereine of India are starring in India in Fashion: The Impact of Indian Dress and Textiles on the Fashionable Imagination at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, Mumbai; and a selection of pieces including a red, green and cream checked silk satin dress worn by Queen Alexandra in 1870 have recently gone on show in a new exhibition celebrating Tartan at V&A Dundee.
The collection can also be enjoyed online via the Fashion Museum website and social media channels. Stay tuned for an exciting digital reveal of our Dress of the Year 2022 selected by Kenya Hunt, Editor-in-Chief of ELLE UK this summer and more behind-the-scenes content of our work in the stores at Dents. We may not have galleries at the moment, but the Fashion Museum remains open for business and keen to continue Doris Langley Moore’s original vision to showcase and share this amazing collection of fashionable dress.
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The Fashion Museum curatorial team waving goodbye to the Assembly Rooms in March 2023
Panorama Room Gallery at the Assembly Rooms, 1960s
Rails of Tyvek garment bags at the Fashion Museum’s temporary accommodation
Textile Conservator Sarah Glenn and Collection Manager Elly Summers packing away a 1750s blue and cream woven silk gown in the Fashion Museum galleries
Textile Conservator Sarah Glenn and Collection Manager Elly Summers taking a 1760s yellow and gold woven silk robe à la française off display in the Fashion Museum galleries
Textile Conservator Sarah Glenn and Collection Manager Elly Summers taking a 1770s cream striped and figured woven silk gown off display in the Fashion Museum galleries
The curatorial team in action! Elaine Uttley and Fleur Johnson take a 1965 cream and dark navy blue wool jersey ‘Mondrian’ dress by Yves Saint Laurent off display in the Fashion Museum galleries
As well as objects, we had to wrap, pack and label our collections of mannequins, stockman figures and underpinnings ready for our move from the Assembly Rooms.
Collection Manager Elaine Uttley packing mannequin torsos into boxes in the Fashion Museum galleries
Huge thanks to Harrow Green Removers for the smooth and seamless move of 100,000 objects to the Fashion Museum’s new temporary accommodation
The Fashion Museum collection has found a temporary home at the headquarters of luxury glovemakers, Dents in Warminster
Deborah Moore, CEO of Dents and Rosemary Harden, Fashion Museum Manager at Dents Headquarters with a duplicate of King George VI’s Coronation Glove
Cream embroidered silk court dress and matching shoes, 1760s on display in Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 8 October 2023
Cream silk court dress with silver and gold metal thread zardozi embroidery by the House of Worth, worn by Lady Curzon, Vicereine of India, ca.1903-1905 on display in India in Fashion: The Impact of Indian Dress and Textiles on the Fashionable Imagination at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, Mumbai until 4 June 2023. Picture courtesy ‘India in Fashion’ at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, India
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