Book Review: Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971

I’ll say straight out that as an admirer of the work of Amy de la Haye and Judith Clark, I was happy to see a publication on fashion exhibitions coming from these two accomplished and innovative curators.  As many Worn Through readers are likely aware, Clark and de la Haye have curated several exhibitions for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and are faculty at the London College of Fashion.  They take very different approaches to the practice and subject of fashion curation, which often intersect with each other.  Clark has been careful not to call herself a “dress historian”, preferring to use fashion to “talk about other things” (Clark and Philips, 2010: 110) and make linkages in aesthetics, philosophies, and design techniques and strategies across time and space. De la Haye takes an object-based, historical approach guided by material culture studies and the social life of dress. The front and back covers illustrate these approaches and the ultimate goal of the book quite nicely, with an archival installation photograph of the main subject of study, “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” (front cover), and its trajectory into the future with a recasting of the exhibition’s promotional imagery and Beaton’s garment selection through a photograph from Harper’s Bazaar in 2013 (back cover).

Front and back covers of Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971, Yale University Press,

Front and back covers of Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971, Yale University Press, 2014

This study is not an exhaustive overview of the history of fashion exhibition themes, strategies, protagonists, or techniques (de la Haye directs readers to Lou Taylor’s excellent Establishing Dress History [2004] for more detailed historical analysis). The title alludes to this incompleteness by referencing a specific pivotal date in time–the year 1971.  The authors take “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” (henceforth referred to in this review as “Anthology”) as a significant marker that changed how fashion was interpreted and displayed, “a moment of shift in fashion curatorship” (p. 6).  Overall, the focus is squarely on the V&A and Beaton’s exhibition, with brief discussions of exhibitions and exhibiting strategies at other museums in the UK, Europe, and the U.S. (the latter mainly the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Because Anthology is not discussed by Beaton in his diaries or by his subsequent biographers, de la Haye and Clark saw a gap in discussion and an opportunity to give this exhibition the scrutiny it deserves, utilizing the recollections and research of past V&A curators, the institutional papers, and archival photographs.

De la Haye and Clark set up their case by first giving some crucial historical context as to why Beaton’s exhibition matters so much (the first three chapters are written by de la Haye). Historically, garments were first kept at the V&A because of the quality or importance of the textile only, or the trimmings or embroideries as evidence of craft.   In the context of the V&A, modern, contemporary fashion was not collected pre-1971.  Up to that point, the goal of bringing legitimacy and respectability to the study of fashion and dress continued to be hard-fought, with the prevalent attitude to costume throughout most of the 20th century as being a “a sort of rather unholy by-product of the textile industry,” to quote Charles Gibbs-Smith commenting on the occasion of James Laver’s death in 1975 and the respectability that Laver brought to the study of costume in England (p. 38). De la Haye dedicates several pages to three British dress study and curation pioneers–James Laver, Doris Langley Moore, and Anne Buck.  These “curatorial case studies” not only acknowledge their contributions to the field but also act as a foil or significant antecedent to the display and curatorial choices within Beaton’s exhibition.

An important point de la Haye emphasizes is that the only two exhibitions of modern fashion at the V&A in the 20th century (pre-1971) were organized by non-professional curators, or by those outside of the museum world–Beaton in 1971, and the 1946 exhibition, “Britain Can Make It” (BCMI), by James Gardner, affectionately known as “G”.  Both exhibitions were also connected to the commercial side of fashion as well–the Council of Industrial Design for BCMI, and the talents of window dressers from major department stores and the inclusion of contemporary London boutiques for Anthology.  BCMI was an industry show of mixed media with a large emphasis on contemporary fashion for men, women, and children–some fashions so new that they were not yet available to the buying public.  The role of exhibition designer did not exist before WWII, and BCMI showcased innovative and “fantastical” exhibition techniques and tableaux by Gardner that were new to the presentation of fashion.  This is evident in numerous archival photographs found at the Brighton University’s Design Archives that reveal spaces filled with theatricality, a sense of movement, and a touch of Surrealism, and contrast with photographs of costume display at the V&A pre-1946 in previous pages, which tend to show garments in rows of display cases or configurations that call for contemplation of single or small clusters of garments in a spare, uncluttered space. Interestingly, BCMI continues to be the highest attended show in the V&A’s history.  Eye-catching, theatrical, and highly designed exhibitions continue to draw crowds and capture the public’s imagination today.

Next, de la Haye discusses Beaton’s artistic practice.  Numerous examples of his innovative approaches in film and theater design, photography, and his love of fancy dress and the fashionable people he often photographed inform how he envisioned his collection, and ground the presentation of dress seen in the exhibition images in Chapter 3.  One can see Beaton’s penchant for creating tableaux with unusual, “low tech” materials (such as distinctive foam masks on mannequins, originally intended for their packing and transport), and his love of illusion and “metamorpheses of space” that were realized through the work of exhibition designer Michael Haynes.

Beaton first suggested the idea for an exhibition of modern fashion to the museum’s then-director, John Pope-Hennessy, in 1969.  Couture would be its “central tenet”, and it was accepted by the director with the stipulation that the exhibition would steer clear of celebrity and promote the garments as “works of art”, not “socially salient objects”, in keeping with the V&A’s emphasis on design (p. 69).  Ironically, this focus would fall short of Beaton’s original vision of highlighting the specific personalities and tastes of the fashionable women he admired (this would be done four years later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “American Women of Style”, curated by Beaton’s close friend, Diana Vreeland).  Instead, the exhibition was broken up into 16 sections, some chronological (1920s, 1930s, 1950s), some dedicated to a particular designer (Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy), some to English contemporary design (Mary Quant, Biba), some to a particular “look” (Space Age) or group (Royal Family).

De la Haye examines this loss of object biography in an extended discussion of Diana Vreeland’s sequined Chanel pyjama suit, which she first considered in her article on Beaton’s Anthology in Fashion Theory (Haye, 2006).  She not only considers Vreeland’s ensemble in the context of Anthology, but also how its presentation and attendant meanings have shifted and changed in the years before and after 1971, both at the V&A and other institutions worldwide.  This is a good set-up for Clark’s later section, which traces the outward and inward reverberations backwards and forwards in time of the styling, construction, display, and conceptual approaches in the exhibition.

One of the strengths of this book is the copious illustrations, many of which have never been seen before this publication, and that dominate the central section of the book.  There is not one section of this publication that is not significantly illustrated.  In talking about and researching exhibition history, images are crucial, and oftentimes they are all we have in reconstructing a curator’s vision or intention.  Sometimes there are none at all left to posterity.  The size of the publication, nearing coffee table book-size at 12 inches in length, lends itself well to showing off the color and black-and-white installation photos to their best advantage.


Complete documentation of installations is common now, but much more unusual for exhibitions of the past.  De la Haye notes that often the timing of publication and exhibition do not coincide, and that studio shots are generally privileged over installation images. Likely because of the high-profile nature of the Beaton exhibition, many installation photographs exist; several photos show the same installation from different vantage points.  This is extremely helpful for analysis, as both de La Haye and Clark note that the object selection for exhibition was done very hastily, and the exhibited items are not noted in the catalog (all 405 garments and accessories from Beaton’s collection–donated to the V&A, the first significant gift of contemporary fashion–are listed).  De la Haye describes Beaton’s installation and Haynes’s design as “enticing, exacting, and original” (p. 72) even to our eyes today, and the photographs of extremely varied and dynamic tableaux are very convincing of this point.   As Judith Clark points out in her later section (#15, “The Mannequins–Gestures”, p. 145), the shorthand or “simplistic equations” for mannequin choices were not established as of 1971.  Anthology’s configurations and mannequin types (especially the bald, makeup-less ones) may look very familiar to our contemporary eyes and we may forget how experimental they were at the time.  Some viewers found the bald mannequins, their heads draped with chiffon, unattractive, “as though there was a bank raid in progress” (p. 104); it was also revolutionary at the time for designer boutiques to use mannequins–the standard method was flat display for garments.

When the book shifts to dusty rose pink pages with red ink print, this aesthetic clue tells us that we are shifting gears–the visual equivalent of “now for something completely different.”  Despite this signal and pleasing color combination (and not the only case in the book where color is used to indicate a transition in direction), I must say that the red print on pink paper is extraordinarily difficult to read, even in the best of lighting situations.


Judith Clark chooses “28 Aspects” of the exhibition on which to focus her attention, whether it is the multiple meanings of a styling prop (#6, “Wigs”; #15, “The Mannequins–Gestures”; “Peach Mirror”), the employment of certain kinds of materials (#14, “Gauze–Blurring”; #10, “Perspex”), future exhibitions inspired by the methods or motivations of Beaton’s Anthology (#4, “Environments, 1996”; #24, “After Beaton, Jones”), a design or museological strategy (#13, “Rotations”; #1, “Finding Space”), or exhibition images that elucidate Anthology catalog entries (#7, “Painted Backdrops: Dali, Bosch and Lepape”), to name a few.

Clark weaves a web of connections between the exhibition and its designers, collaborators, and overall aims to other exhibitions, designers, imagery, museum practice and display approaches past and present.  For example, she considers how contemporaries such as Anna Piaggi and vintage dealer Vern Lambert affected Anthology and Beaton’s vision (#23, “Italian Vogue”) and how future designers like Gianfranco Ferre followed threads considered by Anthology and engaged fashion past and present simultaneously (#4, “Environments, 1996”). In the majority cases the visual and textual evidence for her time and space traveling is intriguing and compelling.  She uses Anthology to “talk about other things” (her quote referenced above) and raises some interesting questions, such as, “If the object (dress) is already defined by its commercial production and established means of dissemination, does it mean that the exhibition can only be an extension of this, or can it be a critique of it too?” (p. 151). 


Some readers may find this open-ended, non-conclusiveness unsatisfying, but in many cases a definitive answer to many of these questions is not possible nor necessarily desired, and leaves the question open for the reader to consider. However the reader chooses to view 28 Aspects, I find that Clark takes an interesting approach to dissecting the meanings and significance of the various exhibition strategies and circumstances, and how they have been culled from both the past and contemporary practice and reverberate forward into the future. Clark’s meditations are about exploring possibilities and connections, anticipated and unexpected.

The final section, “An Incomplete Inventory of Fashion Exhibitions Since 1971” by Jeffrey Horsley, is also illustrated and invites the reader to chart further the traces of or departures from Anthology throughout subsequent exhibitions, from 1971 to 2014.  The image of a robe à la française at the Musée Galliera reflected in an infinity mirror (p. 199) recalls the optical illusion mirror in the Dior section of Anthology, or the concentric black and white squares behind Beaton’s costume for My Fair Lady that greeted visitors at the exhibition entrance.


Horsley culled exhibition dates and titles from colleagues, his own collection of exhibition brochures and ephemera, and from exhibition reviews in journals.   Exhibition trends, though not conclusive, reveal that exhibits of wedding attire, 18th century dress, and accessories (hats, shoes, etc.) are perennially popular.  The “thought show”, or exhibitions examining cultural and social issues surrounding fashion continue to grow since the 1990s; designer monograph exhibitions are also very popular but remain Eurocentric, with the exception of Japanese contemporary designers.

Beaton reflected on his regret that he could not include or acquire everything he wished for for the exhibition and the larger collection with the statement, “I comforted myself that an anthology, by its nature, is always incomplete” (p. 71).  Those looking for a definitive, complete study of international fashion exhibition history in this publication will be disappointed. This publication offers instead a thought-provoking, creative–and incomplete–approach to looking at exhibiting fashion and a pivotal moment in fashion exhibition history.  Overall, Clark, de la Haye, and Horsley’s study successfully demonstrates how Anthology was, especially for the V&A, a plunge into uncharted territory with new and exciting presentations of not just historical fashion, but clothing of the moment.  It provides fascinating material to return to again and again, and leaves out a welcome mat for all who wish to venture further into the research of the fashion exhibition.

Sources referenced:

Clark, Judith and Phillips, Adam (2010).  The Concise Dictionary of Dress.  London: Violette Limited.

Haye, Amy de la (2006). Vogue and the V&A Vitrine:  An Exploration of How British Vogue has responded to Fashion Exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 1971 to 2004, with specific reference to the exhibition, “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” and garments imprinted with wear. Fashion Theory (10): 127-151.

Taylor, Lou (2004). Establishing Dress History. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

All photos provided by the reviewer.

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