Museums have this way of bringing people together. You’re submerged into a quiet space full of revered objects and given a rare moment of contemplation. You are asked to slow down; to look, to think, to appreciate.
“We can’t get them to work,” a woman with greying hair holds out the Nokia 3210-esque audio tour guide to me like a peace offering. I smile, still standing at the first exhibit holding the very knowledgable curator to my ear. The two of them are laughing the way friends do when they’ve known each other for a lifetime. I explain to them how it works, miming pushing the button bearing the play symbol. They smile at me with their eyes and move back to their conversation, absorbed in each other again. Strangely, I can’t remember what they were wearing, just their sharp, kind eyes. I wonder briefly if the clothes will remind them of their own fashion histories.
The Fashion Museum Bath‘s latest exhibition, ‘A History of Fashion in 100 Objects’, features garments from the 1600s to the modern day. Open until January 2019, this new longstanding collection offers a textile journey covering a broad landscape from Jane Austen-style regency gowns to an embroidered jacket worn by Gone With the Wind Actress Vivien Leigh in 1948. 400 years of history is here in just 100 wardrobe changes, and the cherry on top is a fruity head piece created by Piers Atkinson just last year.
Straight out of Pride and Prejudice, the Bath Assembly Rooms, the venue where this exhibition is held, was of course once the home of fashionable British society. The decor matches the Georgian Bath Stone attire of the rest of the city. Boasting chandeliers and high ceilings, the event rooms above the museum are everything you’d imagine; high society painted in eggshell blue and soft pastel yellow.
Fashion is more than just frills; it’s part of the fabric of our economics and sociological values. There are tidbits of our history woven into the exhibition; the RSPB was formed in reaction to our penchant for feathers, skirts shorten and lengthen as gender politics rages on, the wars stiffen fabrics and sharpen angles. This exhibition is an alternate history replacing Lloyd George with Chanel and Jane Austen with House of Worth. A history told through fur hats and breeches, gaffer tape dresses and Christian Dior newspaper patterned leather gloves. Fashion is life, and there is a splash of every aspect here from funeral chic to work wear.
I’m a big fan of dressing-up, and there’s a section of the museum to do just that – letting you try on history for size in the form of everything from a corset to a hooped skirt. This is a welcome pause of laugher and action, helping to break up the exhibition.
In the depths of the museum is a detour to another show – ‘Behind the Scenes at the Fashion Museum’. This small but insightful area lifts the curtain up on the Fashion Museum’s archives. Many of the items are literally stacked in their storage boxes behind the glass. There’s a particularly fetching pair of shoes which catch my eye – a pair of brown boots befitting Tess of the d’Urbevilles. This little corner of the world is a time capsule of women’s fashion from delicate Regency dresses to khaki drill uniforms. Pleats and boots aplenty.
Exhibitions always make me a little nervous. The pressure is on to find the beauty, to look and to really see, whatever that means. I am alone wandering around strangers without the comfort of my headphones. I listen to the people around me. I read the description of each item. Time passes.
As I travel into the ‘90s, I am presented the ‘Dress of the Year’ section. The clothes become swiftly more familiar – catwalk pieces now sit at the sidelines while people walk between them staring outwards. We prance in ballet flats and boots in the aisle between the exhibitions; the tables have turned. The last few pieces have a brazenness to them, cased in coloured display units, they look a little like a Rubik’s Cube.
“Urgh why would people wear these, what’ s happened to the world?” says a precocious little girl as we casually meander into the modern day. I smile despite myself.
In the gift shop there are scarves so beautiful I ache.
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