I thought I would start my first UK based bi-weekly contribution with a review of Bath Fashion Museum, one of the most significant dress collections in the country. However, there is a twist. My visit took place in the last week of 2013, in an effort to catch a final glimpse of the museum’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations. Described as one of the top 10 fashion collections in the world, I had previously overlooked this museum in my dress and museum education pursuits. I discovered that Bath Fashion Museum has a collection of approximately 80,000 objects compared to 75,000 within the Fashion and Textile Collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. To have not noticed the potential of Bath’s offerings is in part due to being a self-confessed citycentric Londoner.
So in an effort to address this oversight, I hope to spend my time with Worn Through bringing you news of more regional events and exhibitions. The visit to Bath Fashion Museum did not disappoint and I can only stress how much it is worth leaving the capital to visit this extensive and thoughtfully exhibited collection.
According to their website, the museum opened in 23 May 1963 as the Museum of Costume and was founded by Doris Langley Moore, an enthusiastic scholar and avid collector of dress. Moore is notable for her interest in fashionable dress as a social and historical practice, based upon detailed object observation and research. According to Dr Lou Taylor, Moore challenged the more psychological, theoretical approach favoured by her contemporaries such as James Laver and Chris Cunnington.
As the presenter of a television series produced by the BBC entitled Men, Women and Clothes, broadcast in April 1957, most of the garments featured were from her private collection then housed in Eridge Castle, Sussex. This series is fascinating viewing for anyone interested in fashion history and theory. Moore’s deep, heavily enunciated narration is hypnotic listening while the attempt to visualise and explain historical changes in dress highly innovative for the time. The decision to use real people in period dress, although considered unacceptable today due to the damage caused to the garments, vividly brings the timeline of fashionable dress to life.
Once the collection was permanently based at Bath and opened to the public, Moore continued to make sure that displays provided as much contextual information as possible, ensuring mannequins were realistically styled in accordance with the particular dress period.
Bath Fashion Museum can be found in the basement of the Assembly Rooms, a set of public rooms opened in 1771 for the purpose of Georgian entertainment. Situated in the upper part of the town centre, the Assembly Rooms is a pleasant 15-20 minute walk from the train station through the historic main streets, which nicely takes in both the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey. Once there, it is possible to see the rather sparse, although clearly splendid at the time, entertainment rooms upstairs before descending upon what is essentially an underground museum. A free audio guide is on offer and although I would recommend this, it was at times slightly unnecessary for those who perhaps prefer to read, rather than listen to, the information on display.
The visitor to the museum is taken on a tour of six key displays, as well as a hands-on area where both adults and children can try on reproduction historical dress such as crinolines, corsets, bonnets, top hats and sportswear. The museum’s website currently cites nine displays but three of these took place earlier in the year so were unavailable on my visit. The breadth of displays on offer in 2013 impressed me, bringing a dynamism to the visit that I think is missing from larger museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Before entering the first display, the visitor is presented with a single outfit at the bottom of the stairs. A fancy dress costume circa 1904, it is an attempt to imitate a bottle of champagne and on the website there is an image of it being worn by an unknown lady. It is a clever and fun introduction to the following display entitled 50 Fabulous Frocks, which is a celebration of the museum’s collection since it opened fifty years ago. It encapsulates an ethos where dress is valued across all sections of society, and is not just designer gowns and celebrity faces. It highlights how dressing up is a well established cultural practice, putting the body in praxis as we reflect upon why and by whom this particular costume was made. Lastly, the symbol of a champagne bottle evokes a celebratory mood, providing a soundtrack of popping corks, effervescent bubbles and raised voices exchanging notes on best fancy dress to accompany the visitor as they experience 50 Fabulous Frocks.
The display is a rich and varied experience, showcasing outfits from the collections that span over 300 years. I particularly liked the juxtaposition of an Ossie Clark floor length dress back to back with a 1930s evening gown. Not only are there fantastic examples of everyday dress, such as a 1940s housecoat where each printed polka dot has been individually quilted to give the whole garment a 3D appearance or the embroidered coat made by an unknown art student, the information labels for each outfit also nicely evoke the social, cultural and economic contexts while avoiding being too academic.
There is an eclectic mix of mannequins to reflect fifty years of displaying fashion. This was an interesting device as it made subtle reference to the history of the museum, again without being overly didactic. I would love to see an exhibition here in the future that focused upon their wonderful collection of mannequins, especially as Moore was known for paying close attention to this detail. Labels for the garments were on the surrounding walls while the objects were displayed in two large cases inaccessible from all sides, which meant much walking back and forth. On the one hand, this almost deterred the visitor from reading about each outfit while on the other, it could have engaged more deeply as they had to actively take control of their own learning by matching up the label with the outfit. In doing so, the visitors could put together their own story of the collection’s highlights.
Following on from this display is 17th Century Gloves, which is small and first opened in 2007 when the museum changed its name to Bath Fashion Museum. It features some of the rarest objects in the collection, with the presentation of 20 pairs of gloves that are over 400 years old. The labels make good use of questions as a way to frame each glove’s unique history. This helps to focus a visitor who may find it initially hard to engage with the significance of such specific objects.
After the gloves, the visitor is invited to view the Behind the Scenes display, which on reflection was a fascinating experience once I read that most visitors to the museum are tourists on the Bath historic site tour. Simply put, the display is focused on the changing fashions of women’s dress in the 1800s until the very early 1900s. However, what the curators have done is to place this chronology against the ‘working’ backdrop of the museum itself. Seven ceiling to floor glass vitrines provide a view onto the museum’s stores in the form of labelled boxes and containers stacked up against interior walls, seen behind the mannequins in the foreground. They are further supported by a cast of references from literature, letters, diaries, magazines and advice manuals from the period.
In her essay Staging Royal London in London: From Punk to Blair, Fiona Henderson suggests that the tourist gaze often seeks out alternative experiences in an effort to uncover the authenticity of a particular place. By illustrating a historical period with these ‘behind the scenes’ snapshots that present the museum as a place of work, the display offers the average Bath tourist a potential new cultural geography of the area. However, this attempt to peel back the official layers of a museum exhibition relies on the display being a performance, which is perhaps demonstrated by the absence of doors or space within the vitrines for people to work with the objects.
Leaving the Behind the Scenes display, the visitor is guided through two displays, the permanent 20th Century Fashion and Glamour, a temporary exhibition celebrating women’s evening wear over the last 100 years. What I liked here was how the labels made suggestions about who might wear similar outfits to those on display. For example, a 1920s coat was labelled with the following: ‘Think…Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald (1925)’ This encourages the visitor to culturally place the garment, inviting him/her to survey one’s own memory for relevant references.
The final display is Dress of the Year, which is an interesting and appropriate end to the museum’s visit. Begun by Langley Moore when the museum opened in 1963, it is a collection of items chosen each year by someone to reflect the fashion of the preceding 12 months. Alongside a selection of previous candidates, including Mary Quant in 1963, Scott Crolla in 1985 and Versace in 2000, was the dress of the year for 2012. Chosen by Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Editor of the Financial Times, it is a Christian Dior ensemble designed by its newest designer Raf Simons. The outfit appropriately marks Simons debut at Dior by drawing attention to his cutting in half of the New Look silhouette to create a contemporary, arguably more androgynous look. Not only did I like the choice but I also loved the complex simplicity of this display idea. Dress of the Year is an invaluable archive and the museum’s website provides concise information about each year’s selection since the display’s inception. I look forward to finding out what Susie Lau, the well established fashion blogger, will choose to represent 2013 in March this year.
Special mention must be made about a huge suggestion board within the museum for other relevant dress collections and exhibitions, where I spent a good amount of time reading all the postcards. I came away with a great inventory and alongside a list made by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Brighton for dress collections in the southern areas of England this will now form the basis for my future excursions. I would also love to hear about more events taking place across the UK, especially in the Northern regions, so please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or add it to the comments below.