London museums and fashion

London‘s major museums are following a trend for fashion exhibitions. Time Out argues they have relevance and depth beyond superficial chic

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    'New York Fashion Now' at the V&A

    Has silly season hit London’s museums, as well as our press, with the closure of Parliament? A look at the exhibitions lined up for the summer and autumn months might suggest so. Over at the V&A, ‘New York Fashion Now’ looks at the fashion industry across the pond, including a close-up on its ‘dressy women’s sportswear’ and its catwalks’ ‘celebrity-studded front rows’. At the Imperial War Museum, streetwear maestros Maharishi host ‘Camouflage’, an examination of the splodgy utilitarian fabric beloved of the Army, the A-Team, and East 17, advertising it with a bright flyer emblazoned with a printed pink stiletto. Even the National Maritime Museum is capitalising on the students-on-holiday pound with a celebration of ‘Sailor Chic’, an examination of all things nautical but nice.

    Whatever next? Re-christening the V&A the Victoria & David, in favour of our most extravagantly dressed celebrity couple? ‘What would Ruskin have thought?’ asks Stephen Bayley, the cultural commentator and founder of the Design Museum who was the most vitriolic critic of the V&A’s Kylie retrospective earlier this year. As Ruskin once declared that ‘No art can be noble which is incapable of expressing thought’, he might well have raised an eyebrow at the exhibition of camouflage fatigues, Breton tops or Yankees baseball caps in our most venerable institutions. That is, however, until he had a look at them.

    'Camouflage' at the Imperial War Museum (P Tudor-Hart, 1917 © Artist's Estate)

    ‘Camouflage’, for instance, is a fascinating exhibition, perfectly appropriate to a museum dedicated to explaining the means and the ends of war. It illustrates how the genesis of aerial surveillance led to the need to disguise guns and buildings for the first time, explains how advances in warfare meant swiftly ditching pomp and distinctive military regalia, and reveals how surrealists, cubists and sculptors were brought on board during World War I to dazzle and deceive the enemy. Those fashion students lured in by the promise of special couture by John Galliano and prints by Andy Warhol will learn something about the history of warfare without even trying.

    Head of marketing and visitor services Rebecca Stephens acknowledges that ‘Camouflage’ is partly a bid for that elusive 18- to-35-year-old audience, more likely to get off the tube at Oxford Circus to visit Topshop than at Lambeth North to learn about cannons. In this it has been successful; since the IWM introduced its programme of ‘Special Exhibitions’ like ‘Camouflage’, it has nearly doubled its numbers from 400,000 to 750,000, and admitted a much higher percentage of young adults than normal. Of those, 86 per cent said they would now come to the museum for a future exhibition. Likewise, ‘Sailor Chic’ has had an ‘extremely supportive and enthusiastic’ reception, according to curator Amy Miller.

    Shows like ‘Camouflage’ and ‘Sailor Chic’ – which boasts Nelson’s cocked hat, as modelled at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the iconic sailor suit in which Queen Victoria famously dressed Prince Albert – are packaging highly informative exhibitions in glossy, instantly appealing wrapping; increasingly necessary when museums compete with iPods, ‘Big Brother’ and games consoles for our attention. And it can’t be ignored that these hugely popular special displays are also often the ones that levy an admission fee – a few ‘Sailor Chic’ ticket-holders in effect pay for a lot of the more academic, static shows.

    'The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957' at V&A

    Those exhibitions with no pretensions to anything other than matters of the wardrobe aren’t the preserve of fashion students and bored socialites either. The V&A’s ‘Fashion in Motion’ series, for instance (in which a designer, with Manish Arora next up, is offered the backdrop of the museum for a roaming catwalk), is rarely linked to ancient textiles or socio-economic factors. But this series is highly successful, with every one of the ticketed events sold out on the day of ticket release. Just because something is popular does not mean it merits public funding or attention, but our museums do have a duty to give people access to things they couldn’t ordinarily see.

    London boasts two of the most reputable fashion colleges in the world, Central St Martins and the London College of Fashion, and our museums should be as much a resource for them as our galleries are to the RCA. Nor is an interest in clothing and textiles a capitulation to a fashion fad: ‘The V&A has always been democratic, has always engaged with designers from all fields,’ says curator Oriole Cullen. ‘Clothes are a document of social history, as well as a chance for people to engage with something.’

    Arguably, some of the forthcoming exhibitions are lighter than others; Matthew Williamson is not so much a maverick as a maker of frocks for moneyed boho types and his celebrity friends, so the Design Museum’s retrospective of his work is unlikely to be more than a pretty diversion, in contrast to the V&A’s ‘Golden Age of Couture’, which covers the decade in which Dior’s New Look reflected and catalysed a post-war decadence vital to any historical account of the period. Just as today we are classified as ‘white-collar workers’, and ‘hoodies’, fashion has always been a barometer of our life and times, and just like an ancient fossil or vase, it can reveal aspects of our past and present.

    Camouflage’ at the Imperial War Museum: until Nov 18, adm £7concs £6, children free.
    ‘The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957’ at V&A: Sept 22-Jan 6 2008, adm £10.40.
    Manish Arora, ‘Fashion in Motion’, at V&A: Sept 7, free but ticketed (020 7942 2820, booking opens Aug 28).
    ‘Matthew Williamson: 10 Years in Fashion’ at the Design Museum: Oct 10-Feb 24 2008, adm £7, students/concs £4, under-12s free.
    New York Fashion Now’ at the V&A: until Dec 23, adm free.
    Sailor Chic’ at the National Maritime Museum: until Dec 2, adm £5, concs £4.

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