V&A Fashion from a Bygone Age

The Victoria & Albert museum in central London(often abbreviated as the V&A), is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects. It was founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Not everything shown there is old: One of the most talked about recent exhibitions there was of the music, art, costume and life of the pop-star and one-time Ziggy Stardust- David Bowie and featured many of his outrageous stage costumes, lyric sheets, music equipment and a lot more.
The museum’s costume collection is the most comprehensive in Britain, and anyone who has even the slightest interest in fashion should spend some time there. It contains over 14,000 outfits plus accessories, mostly dating from 1600 to the present. Practical reasons mean that the collection is dominated by fashionable clothes made for special occasions and therefore preserved at the time they were made; people’s day-to-day wear tended to be hand-me-down until it was no longer viable and therefore very few clothes of that sort remain (although there are photos and drawings of what they looked like).
The museum got a real boost just before the First World War in 1913 when the V&A was gifted the Talbot Hughes collection containing 1,442 costumes and items as a gift from nearby famous department store, Harrods.
The collection includes such invaluable items as the wedding suit of James II of England. Collections subsequently acquired include items worn by Audrey Hepburn and Ruth Ford and works from the world’s best fashion designers. These include almost anyone who has been anything in the fashion world in the last 50 years-Coco Chanel, Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Guy Laroche, Norman Hartnell, Zandra Rhodes, Hardy Amies, Mary Quant, Christian Lacroix, Jean Muir and Pierre Cardin. Because it’s a living, breathing, museum its collection is constantly receiving new material- if you’ll excuse the pun.
The V&A runs a world-renowned textile and dress conservation programme. As an example a few years ago an important but heavily soiled and water-damaged 1954 Dior outfit called “Zemire” was restored to displayable condition for the Golden Age of Couture exhibition.
The clothing featured at the exhibition draws attention to the very high level of skill in dressmaking and design carried out by dressmakers and tailors in Victorian times. Being so skilled labour intensive they clothes of this period were expensive to make -they were high fashion comparable to today’s haute couture. A lot of (mainly male) visitors comment upon the absence of men’s clothing. That’s because very few examples of men’s clothing have survived from this period. That’s because men’s suits tended to be worn both at work and socially and so didn’t last that long.Why would they hang up and preserve a suit- even a wedding suit that they could wear for other occasions without having to have an expensive new suit tailored?
Finally, the museum tells us about opposition to some of the clothing made and worn in Victorian times. Members of societies such as the Dress Reform Movement and the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union were critical of heavy restrictive clothing and eye-wateringly tight corsets, which they thought unhealthy and lacking in grace. They favoured making garments from washable fabrics and making dress healthier in other ways. Almost like a temperance society for clothes! We are told that some enthusiastic dress reformers advocated woollen underwear in the belief that it allowed the skin to breathe better than other fabrics. Hmmm.
Go to the V&A museum in London if you get a chance- it’s free!