Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 at the V&A

Many girls my age, in their early twenties, were quite dubious when I told them about the Wedding Dresses exhibition at the V&A. Cautious about how interesting it might be at the most, it certainly did not provoke a burst of excitement and enthusiasm about fashion centred around holy matrimony. This can be explained for various reason. The first is the reason why, when I arrived at the circular exhibition space layered onto two floors like a wedding cake, I found a mainly feminine audience but more specifically one filled with women in their thirties or beyond. Marriage is simply not something most students or graduates can really relate to anymore, too busy building their careers, social life…or simply enjoying a fresher take on relations and life with a significant someone…without eternal vows! The second reason is a valid point raised when a discussion arises on the evolution of the wedding dress: “it’s always going to be the traditional white dress…wouldn’t it all end up looking the same anyway?”

Honiton lace wedding veil (detail), British, c.1850 c.1850 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Arguably, this would be the main shortcoming of any exhibition that based around the wedding dress, especially since this exhibition ranges from 1775 onwards, at the very moment when white or pastel tones start coming into fashion and disregard the brighter, bolder colours of old. Symbolic “purity” mingled with an iconic aesthetic appeal that has stuck with us ever since. Yet within this exhibition, this homogeneity also creates a single point of reference for a multiplicity of viewpoints, influences and changes.

The bottom half of the exhibition, ranging from the end of the 18th century to the 1960s, showcases the very beginning of this tradition cemented by Queen Victoria’s decision to wear all white at her wedding, her dress trimmed with British lace to support her country’s industry and thus launching the mainstream bridal fashion ever since (The last exhibition I reviewed, Making Colour, shows Queen Victoria fashionably sporting purple dresses with her family and influencing her subjects to do the same, leading me to believe that Queen Victoria was, unexpectedly, a great trendsetter). Such small details, revolving around economical and social change, focusing on a greater picture as well as an emotional and aesthetic understanding of the wedding ceremony, allowed the exhibition to take a step further than expected.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This first half, with its muted lighting and powder blue and pink displays interspersed with quotes about nervous brides and excited grooms, is involved with the establishment of a recognisable tradition with its lace, wreaths and light tones, but also debunks quite a large amount of myths. For me, the greatest surprise was the relative sense of sobriety and economy based around the early wedding dresses: most of them were made to be worn again, sometimes involving simpler fabric that could be re-washed easily, as well as detachable sleeves so as to create a more fashionable and less modest outfit once the ceremony was over! The fact that church weddings were considered a lower-class option, since most upper-class members of society could choose – and pay – to wed wherever they wanted, was unknown to me. In a sense, the exhibition busies itself with easing the rigour of tradition while reinforcing it at the same time: I would have preferred to see less dresses from the 19th century but more early examples of wedding dresses before the tyranny of white set in.

Silk brocade gown and petticoat, silk covered straw hat and silk satin shoes, 1780 Worn by Jane Bailey for her marriage to James Wickham 1780. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Photograph by John Chase.

Nevertheless, the transition into the 20th century gives a fascinating insight into the way in which weddings’ nature changes, adapting to the glitter of high society, allowing for extravagant dresses and their trains, made for the first time for a special, unique occaision. The glittery socialites of the 20s and early 30s could also celebrate in white now! Any sense of practicality rapidly flew out of the window for those brides whose wedding was broadcast on television for the record of the dress with the longest train: this was the case for the the bride Margaret Whigham, in her wedding regalia designed by Norman Hartnell.

Embroidered silk satin wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell, 1933 Worn by Margaret Whigham for her marriage to Charles Sweeny, 1933. Given and worn by Margaret, Duchess of Argyll © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The marketing of bridal dresses increases just as several brides and their seamstresses start experimenting with more daring, individual ways of expressing themselves, giving a stellar, socialite feel to the wedding ceremony. The way in which the wedding dress and its ceremony enmeshes itself with the political and social climate of its time culminates into an elegant and sober dress from WWII made of parachute fabric, below, in red. Both modest and modern, brave in its bold colour and cut perhaps due more to shortage of textile than anything else, it struck out to me as far more interesting than the traditional gauzy whiteness surrounding it. There again, possessing more information on the bride and the way in which the dress was made created a subtle but essential bond between the former bride, the dress and the viewer.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As I climb the stairs, the top half opens up the space and dims the lighting for a spectacular panoramic view of modern and contemporary dresswear. Here, the visitor winds through the space in a less chronological way, with a broader overview of micro-influences and changes from one decade to the next. It feels as though a fashion magazine column on the top ten most glamorous celebrity wedding has come to life…which can have its shortcomings as well. In terms of presentation and amount of stunning dresses, many of them presented outside the usual glass cases, like a mock fashion runway, twisting and turning throughout the 60s till today.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is the rise of the fashion designer, where the name and brand start to supersede a more homogeneous sense of fashion to be adapted to everyday life by anonymous seamstresses. If anything the wedding dress has been more spectacular than ever before: as we tend to marry later in life and therefore possess a lot more means to fund a spectacular ceremony, the wedding gowns follow suit. White still dominates the scene…except for a few exceptions, such as Dita von Teese’s glamorous punk-rock purple  dress. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The dresses are beautifully presented and we are given a immensely complex insight into the way in which they have been tailored, as well as the various textures and experiments that have been undertaken. From a fashion historical point of view, and from the point of view of design, form meets content flawlessly as each decade’s state of mind is explored. From a social point of view…less so. No more parachute wedding dresses here. Yet without rising to that extreme, the sense of diversity is slightly lost. In a sense seeing all these high-fashion dresses creates a sense of greater distanciation than the relation felt with the dresses downstairs and their stories attached to anonymous lives. The interest is diverted from the dress and its design to the person wearing it. I want to focus on the way in which the dress is made and how it makes a tradition evolve, not a case of “which celebrity is wearing which designer” (guesses are open below*) Is this also something that is going to remain relevant to mainstream wedding tradition? Most of these celebrities can afford to step out of the norm but this is exactly like assessing 19th century fashion based solely on what the upper class would wear.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another slight disappointment: the last part was quite heteronormative. Recent laws in numerous countries allowing same-gender marriage for gay, lesbian and bisexual people have created a revolution in the way in which many people can express their love and lifelong commitment. Showing how this has influenced the wedding dress or costume, even while mainly focusing on lesbian and bisexual women and their womenswear, would have been a welcome eye-opener and an interesting way of seeing the way in which tradition is tailored to social change. Would their dresses match? Would one bride still want to wear a tux to twist tradition around or consider this as weirdly heteronormative in its own right? It would also have created a very interesting contrast with a few of the LGBTQA issues explored in their current exhibition, Disobedient Objects.

This exhibition’s journey through time gave me an informative and touchingly intimate take on the way the traditional marriage was born and how it evolved in relation to our political and social attitudes, making it far less superficial and purely religious than it first seemed. Yet this realization and complexity makes it even more obvious when it does cut short of something more in-depth. It sometimes devolved from an emotional and intimate journey into a visual overload that lost its clear message, especially when it brought royalty and celebrities into the picture. I don’t need an exhibition to coo over how pretty *Kate Moss’ dress is, however true that fact may be: I need to know how it fits into a larger picture regarding marriage today and how we feel about it.

Claire Mead

W edding Dress, 1775-2014 at the V&A, until the 15th of March 2015.


Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

The Glamour of Italian Fashion, 1945-2014 at the V&A (part 2)

In my first part on the exhibition The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 at the V&A it was neccessary to set the scene for postwar Italy: impoverished, the funding it received through the Marshall Plan for regional industries provided high quality material that could fuel a fashion industry about to break through onto the international scene. Following Giorgini’s efforts to showcase the best of Italian production in the 50s, a potent market was found in North America for exquisite and hand-sewn pieces strengthened by a blend of quality and tradition. The 60s saw the emergence of a cultural fascination with Italy that went hand in hand with its fashion, creating an attitude and attractiveness that only grew throughout the years.

So far the main concern had been the creation of the “perfect outfit” – made for a maker’s loyal and exacting clients, every detail curtailed to his or her desire. Yet the late 60s and early 70s called for a new approach. Just as Florence and Rome were being replaced by Milan as the new capital of Italian fashion, ready-to-wear fashion was on the rise, where the concern was not so much the perfect outfit, but the perfect “style”.

On that note, the exhibition leads us seamlessly into this second part, where the outfits on display are now almost all left unprotected by glass; this allows for more observation of the textures but is also intentionally reminiscent of shop display rather than a traditional  museum collection.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Indeed, proudly displayed at the entrance of the room, Elio Fiorucci and Walter Albini have become the epitome of the new designer that have embraced the ready-to-wear market branching out into clothes stores. They eclipse the traditional dressmaker with the more modern notion of “Lo Stilista”: the designer, stylist and mediator in terms of brand image and clothing. This new creator is concerned as much with the marketing image and wide-range accessibility of his products…while retaining an impeccable quality in his materials, as well as a newfound inventivity. The motto of Ferregamo mentioned at some point encapsulates this attitude: “Handmade shoes by mass production.”

This is perfectly on par with the marketing campaign “Made in Italy” that sought to increase the appeal of Italian fashion abroad. While Elio Fiorucci was definitely concerned with the branding aspect of his work, Albini, trained as an illustrator, uses his skills to produce elegant sketches that search for this sense of style and expression. Yet there is also a stronger focus, as we evoved through the display, on a more concise exploration of fashion’s relation to italian production. A video displays the regions that provide the industry with silk (Como), wool (Biella) and leather (Tuscany). The slightly dry and advert-like feel of the small video is toned down by the garments displayed on rows either side in themes corresponding to the textiles used, from Missoni’s knitwear to Karl Lagerfeld’s multicolour mink or Max Mara’s camel coat.

Women’s knitted ensemble 1972 Missoni 528 KB Missoni / Fashion in Motion at the V&A, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The last part is one that concerns itself not only with fashion but essentially with the way it is channelled throughout modern media and deified.Lo Silisto here becomes, in the year 2014, the “designer”, whose world and its superstar status is defined as such by Anne Piaggi: “a secret society, made up of pioneers, a few inventors and a few poets. They are the new phenomenon and the new elite.”

The room is large and dark, projecting a sense of covert holiness as a large dome-like structure stretches overhead and a screen shows a whirl of videos in which models stride across the catwalk as a reconstruction of one displays various haute couture designs from recent years. Almost too excessive, too showy…yet it works. Maybe the true key to displaying fashion that oscillates between elegance and brightly coloured, textured luxury.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some are instantly known, such as Valentino or Dolce & Gabbana. Yet again, some are new arrivals, designers yet to become fashionable household names. In a sense, I wish I could have seen more of these. We see a lot of well-known fashion designers throughout the exhibition itself so giving more of the scene to a larger array of emerging designers would have been interesting. Yet this is a small point in itself…counterbalanced by a video at the end of the exhibition in which designers, editors and fashion experts are asked their opinion concerning the future of italian fashion, and encourage the presence of fresh emerging designers within the industry.

The exhibition finishes off with a greater focus on photography as not only the vehicule of a design but also of the idea and appeal behind it, sometimes drawing on lyrical, cultural and even political themes, such as the Benetton ads by its artistic director Oliviero Toscani that became revolutionary for the messages that they conveyed rather than their presentation of the clothing, making a brand image something other than its garments…making it desirable and glamorous as a concept in itself.

This exhibition left a great impression on me…and it might have been one of my favourite so far this year. It showed an immense love of the clothes and a concise eye not only on Italian fashion but on the evolution of an industry as a whole. I would have personaly loved to see more fashion sketches; there were a few dotted here and there as well but not always a clear overview concerning their contribution to the final product. However I understand the fact that the focus had to be on the Italian textiles and the way they shaped the design of the clothes, rather than the sketched idea. The sheer amount and quality of the clothes was overwhelming, although I would a few more in-depth spotlights on particular designers in certain places and maybe more historical context in terms of Italy’s political and social situation. How were other industries faring? To what extent were Italians themselves and their governement supportive in relation to international buyers, aside from the prosperity that this would inject into the country? The subject is mentioned but remains vague, perhaps reflecting the concluding video in which the need for renewal and economical support is stressed.

Another subject that would have interested me would have been the way in which Italians would express this dolce vita, nonchalant and refined way of dressing outside of the catwalk and workshops, to see a bit more of the “typical” dressers and consumers rather than having allusions to a faceless market. Yet, there was an immense width of information to cover and I think that this insighful overview was perfectly handled. On display until the 27th of July, this exhibition is one that I cannot recommend enough.

Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 at the V&A (part 1)

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Italian fashion is a universal symbol of excellent taste and elegance. Its legacy and enduring influence on what we wear and the attitude we aspire to is infinite. But now more than ever, fashion is uprooted from the places it originates from. Influences from different countries and cultures merge, further encouraged by the internet, press and media. For this reason, this exhibition and its return to the geographical and cultural roots of Italian postwar fashion is essential, showing us how the fashion industry changed and thrived through regional industries that, with funding through the Marshall plan, managed to provide high-quality materials for the fashion industry.

While showing its national tradition and international flourishing the exhibition shows the way in which the relation to craft and presentation of a garment changed drastically, from seamstresses creating custom-made wardrobes to fashion designers creating ready-to-wear creations encouraged by shops and an increasing fashion media. Finally, we are projected into today’s Italian fashion and the way it both learns from the past and transcends it.

The exhibition divides itself into three sections, in chronological order, each of them possessing a particular design and atmosphere that makes our travelling through the space as viewers organized yet far from forced.

The first part introduces us to the Italy of the early 1950s, in the context of economic peril and reconstruction, receiving funding through the Marshall plan in order to revitalise regional industries. At the time, the idea of ready-to-wear clothes is not yet in place. The clothes that are displayed were made to order and made to measure – a testimony to the skill and tradition of the seamstress. The dim lighting soften the atmosphere and highlighted the intricate details on the ball gowns encased in glass; far from reduced to a clinical, documentary-like display, they are still stealing the show. After a quick glance at everyday wear, luxurious dresses are quickly in the spolight – a good contrast, but one that was almost too hasty. A more homogeneous glance would have given a good overview of fashion on all levels of society at the time.

Sartoria, or dresswear, came in many different colours and textures – silk, chiffon, satin, chantilly lace…and 80% of it was hand-sewn.The pink dress below, by Schuberth, demonstrates a stunning use of sfumatura, a gradation of colour from pale to dark, one amongst many examples of the technique and quality involved.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An immense array of skilled creators that lead the workshops creating these pieces, usually for a loyal clientele that is accustomed to a particular style or cut. The names are as numerous as the gowns are glamorous, with their richness and inventivity despite shapes that remain for the most part conservative and impractical, reserved for special events. Amongst them, Roberto Cappucci (the silk purple gown above), Alberto Fabiani and the Sorelle Fontana. The relation to WWII is often more intense for these creators than a concern with economy and clientele. Indeed Simonetta, whose exquisite satin and silk cream gown can be seen below, was imprisoned in the 40s due to her antifacist involvement.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

She was one of the participants in Italy’s first internationally recognised fashion show, at the Sala Bianca in Florence, organized by Giovanni Battista Giorgini. An Italian buisnessman, his concern was to promote Italian fashion to an international audience, and draw the attention from Paris, the “couture capital” at the time. The documentation through letters and invitations as well as rare photographs and footage provided are testimonies to the rousing sucess of his first shows from 1951 onwards, showing the quality and variety of fabrics that would set the scene for the “Made in Italy” cultural trademark.

The Birth of Italian Fashion
Fashion show in Sala Bianca, 1955, Archivio Giorgini, Photo by G.M. Fadigati, © Giorgini Archive, Florence

Giorgini’s fashion shows were an immense success and the audience, first a select circle of press and clients, became larger and larger every year. He also drew heavily on the elements that made Italy Florence, a place that appeared attractive and glamorous to its American visitors – its history and culture. For this reason, a Botticelli was once on display in his show to create a clear relation between Italy’s past artistic success and its present.

These would have attracted more clients that had the means and elegance to satisfy their taste with lasting and loyal collaborations. One of these collaborations can be cristallized through the display of Margaret Abegg’s wardrobe, whose pieces were exclusively created by Maria Grimaldi, a dressmaker from Turin. Margaret Abegg herself was the wife of an American textile industrial and represented the exact clientele that Italy wanted to attract. She donated these clothes to the V&A and mentioned the fact that they had been widely admired in Paris and London: an international collaboration for an international woman. The clothes, both formal and casual, reflected perfectly the idea of the Total Look: a palette-specific, carefully coordinated wardrobe that was the result of discussions, readjustements and above all immense trust between the client and the dressmaker.

Once this first image of glamour and culture was established for an american audience, the american audience and its own cultural icons were quick to demonstrate a clear attraction towards Italy and its clothing, projecting a fantasy image of it through Hollywood films, such as Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 The dress worn by Audrey Hepburn during War and Peace, shown above at the centre, was designed by Fernanda Gattinoni, who launched a whole line specifically adapted from Empire fashion. Other films such as Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor, launched more casual trends, such as the palazzo pyjama, for semi-formal occaisions, coined by Princess Irene Galitzine and made famous by Jackie Kennedy. Despite the obvious glamour of these, the subtle arrival to a more casual style of dress is evident throughout the 60s and 70s as we progress through the room.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014,Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The glamour that Hollywood drew from Italy was that of leisure and comfort associated with elegance, distancing itself slowly but surely from the weighty gowns of the 50s. This epitome of dolce vita was reflected in fashion for both women and men, whose suits were becoming more elegantly casual and nonchalant with the notion of spezzato (mismatching suit vests and trousers).

The transition can perhaps best be noted in Mila Schön’s matelassé gown, worn by Princess Lee Radziwi at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. The craft is unique, each sequin hand-stiched, yet the traditional cuts and waistlines of the 50s have been replaced by a less restrictive, playful linear form, emblematic of the 60s.

Evening dress of embroidered net and matelasse coat, 1966, Mila Schön, Courtesy Maison Mila Schön, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fashion as well as its image, its clients and their needs were quickly evolving, gaining momentum through the reputation that Italian craftsmanship was gaining on an international level. The tradition of made-for-custom dressmaking that established Italian fashion would create its own downfall, and give way to the ready-to-wear industry that could cater to a larger audience by the 70s.

This exhibition was rich and extensive; in order to avoid cutting too much out of it and for the sake of experimentation with my posts, I will let you discover the rest of it in a second part tomorrow, along with my own personal conclusions. In the meanwhile…enjoy a glamorous Sunday while celebrating Audrey Hepburn’s anniversary. Watching War and Peace and admiring the way she wears Gattinoni’s gown may be in order.