My visit to the V&A Museum last week was earmarked for viewing the recently opened Hollywood Costume exhibition. However, large crowds and a lovely lunch with a new friend conspired to prevent my entry into the show. Instead, it was an afternoon for hidden gems. After a dazzling hour spent in the Jewellery Galleries, my friend, a writer and illustrator who was on the hunt for various reference images, steered us through a dark but inviting little room. Room 90a: Portrait Miniatures.
Portrait miniatures are a delightful and rich source of fashion information. And because they are so small – they require you to look closely. This is obvious perhaps, but it is this very fact that makes them so alluring for fashion historians with an eye for detail. (The miniatures in this post will likely appear on your screen larger than they are in actuality.)
Popular in Europe as love tokens and special gifts among friends and family, from the 16th century, they trace trends in hairstyles, jewellery, and clothing among the upper classes. The V&A’s extensive collection of miniatures, displayed chronologically gives the effect of viewing a yearbook – or of Facebook.
These faces and their fashions give a sense of the style of the era, and closer inspection shows they hold a multitude of information in their small frames.
The V&A’s website features a grid of all of the miniatures on display in room 90a, so you can have a very satisfying virtual visit from wherever you are in the world. In fact, with high-resolution images of each portrait, you can use digital technology to zoom in closer than the human eye in order to discover minute details. The Portrait Miniatures page also features links to information about the history, creation, dissemination and conservation of miniatures.
Perhaps what captivates me the most about portrait miniatures is their near total obsoletion. Who paints miniatures today? We can take “portrait miniatures” on our phones, or even send loved ones our face on a sticker made in seconds in a photo booth.
My impromptu foray into room 90a was a truly happy accident. I may have to wait until the excitement over Hollywood Costume quiets down a little before returning to view and review the show – but when I do, I’ll make sure to pass again through for another look at the mystifying and terribly chic portrait miniatures in the V&A’s collection.