An unusual exhibition at Bath's Fashion Museum
From Georgian night robes to trainers, Bath’s Fashion Museum's latest exhibition takes a different approach to showing four centuries of dressing up, by highlighting a number of socially significant items. K went on the trail.
In 2010, the British Museum launched a History of the World in 100 Objects. Rather than an exhibition, it was a trail through objects in the building’s permanent collection. Its multi-media format helped it to become one of London’s most successful cultural events in recent years.
Its success has inspired a range of similar events around the world. In the UK, the latest of these, A History of Fashion in 100 Objects, opened at Bath’s Fashion Museum earlier this year.
For a lot of people fashion still exists at the margins, written off as light, ephemeral and froufrou.
The museum is based in an impressive regency building at the heart of the city famous for its Roman public baths and immortalised by novelist Jane Austen, who based two of her six novels there. The exhibition collects its hundred objects - from dresses, skirts and suits to fans, jewellery and hats – in a stand-alone exhibition that takes over most of the building. It is a collection of era-defining outfits and headline pieces that have shaped the nation’s – and the world’s - wardrobes over the past four centuries.
Like its London inspiration, Bath’s show relies only on its existing collection and, as in the British Museum, the objects are selected less for their aesthetic merit as for their power as social commentary. For, at the core of A History of Fashion in 100 Objects, is the attempt to discover the connection between what we – at least we in the West - choose to wear, how we see ourselves and how we wish to be seen.
The location, in the building’s basement, and the light conditions, frequently low to protect the older pieces from bleaching, provide an eerie atmosphere in which visitor conversations take place in excited whispers.
For motoring and mourning
In one section a series of billowy, printed cotton day dresses – all the rage in the 1860s – conjure up Miss Haversham, the reclusive anti-heroine of Dickens’ Great Expectations, growing old in her darkened bedroom, refusing to change out of the wedding dress she has worn since she was jilted at the altar.
The motif is reprised at the end of the exhibition. Item 99 is the 2014 creation of British designer Gareth Pugh: a multi-layered, surging dress of thin, translucent plastic, of the type that blows up off the sand on a litter-strewn beach.
Other exhibits contrast the plainly practical – a 1902 ‘duster’ jacket produced by Dunhill for the early motor enthusiasts – with the bizarrely impractical; admiring the elegant arching plume of pheasant feathers topping a woman’s felt hat, you shudder to see the entire carcass of the bird arranged around the brim.
There are interesting lessons in the complex constraints that social traditions have imposed on clothing. As if grieving for a loved one was not hard enough by itself, the nineteenth century imposed an exacting protocol of mourning dress, popularised by Queen Victoria following the death of her husband Prince Albert. Black and crepe was the order for the first year and a day, we learn. Requirements are then softened gradually: three months of glossy silk – in black – and jewellery – only jet, never sparkly; followed by six of white, grey and purple shades.
While this onerous tradition has fallen out of favour, others, sadly, remain. A lurid seven-year old’s woollen jumper, knitted by her mother to celebrate the 1935 silver Jubilee of George V, hints at a rich and lengthy history to the sartorial humiliation that children still endure at the hands of ‘creative’ parents.
There are good reasons the 100 objects meme has spread. Limit your exhibition to a certain number of items and you can avoid visitors being overwhelmed or disorientated by a large collection. Give it a theme and people feel they can come out with a tangible story to show for their visit.
Both benefits seem particularly important for fashion to pursue. Traditional associations with couture in the public mind – seen by many as elitist and remote – means that just mentioning ‘fashion’ risks alienating large swathes of a neutral audience before you start.
“For a lot of people fashion still exists at the margins, written off as light, ephemeral and froufrou,” says Dr Kate Strasdin of the Fashion and Textiles Institute at Falmouth University, who advises the Fashion Museum in Bath.
“So many people say to me that they are fascinated by dress but not that interested in fashion.”
The strength of focusing on individual objects, she notes, reminds the visitor that fashion can exist more fundamentally as social biography than be seen as lofty art or elitist style.
Stretching the timescale of the installation back to the 1600s helps in this regard. And limiting the number of items encourages visitors to dwell. This should help spawn debate and conversation – arguably the litmus test of an exhibition in any medium.
Strasdin’s favourite is a liberty bodice, an essential item for women for 40 odd years up to the 1960s. “My mother used to hate hers so much she would take it off during the day and hide it on top of the school boiler,” she recalls.
This type of personal response is exactly what the 100 object format is designed to elicit. Whispered they may have be, but if you make it to Bath you will overhear – and, who knows, initiate – some engaging exchanges about what we wear, how we feel and what it all means.
A History of Fashion in 100 Objects, Until January 2019