Illustration of 1900s champagne fancy dress costume, unknown maker, by Freddy Thorn.
Like any good birthday bash, it begins with champagne; a bottle of 1904 Veuve Clicquot to be exact, taking the form of an elaborate Edwardian fancy dress ensemble.
Recently listed by CNN as one of the top ten fashion museums in the world, Bath’s Fashion Museum has come a long way since its creation by Doris Langley Moore and the Bath City Council in 1963. This is a varied exhibition, featuring 50 of the fashion museums ‘greatest hits’ with dresses spanning across the ages, from one of the oldest dresses in any UK museum (a 1660 piece affectionately known as the ‘Silver Tissue Dress’) to a fresh-off-the-catwalk 2012 Louis Vuitton piece. Eveningwear sits comfortably by poolside attire, sportswear next to corsets; each dress a snapshot of fashion history.
Illustration of 5 of the 50 dresses by May Van Milllingen.
There are plenty of ‘celebrity’ frocks here: a Christian Dior dress from the 1950s, a Chanel from the 1960s and a Jean-Paul Gaultier from the 1990s just a few of the gems in this collection. With dresses that have graced the pages of Vogue alongside cages and crinolines, these pieces form a dynamic exhibit exploring dresses across the centuries.
Photos of red and navy lace Erdem and black Rocha dress by Chris Moore.
An ostrich feather 1960s Yves Saint Laurent concoction made for ballerina Margot Fonteyn catches my eye as does a Dame Vivienne Westwood regency style dress nestled among the kinds of dresses it’s emulating. A 1940s pink Mickey Mouse aertex dress sits next to a polka-dot housecoat lined with gingham and there’s even a wedding dress from the 1890s among the ranks. These clothes are famous; there’s a red mini dress worn by Ernestine Carter, a former Fashion Editor of The Sunday Times, as well as an Ossie Clark dress literally taken straight out of a David Hockney, Tate painting.
I go to the exhibit twice, once with my friends on a sunny Saturday and we whizz through it in true tourist fashion (pun intentional) as I snap a few photos. We amble through the corsets and cages, pantsuits and Burberry raincoats, quickly and hungrily. We notice a group of young female museum-goers all wearing the same outfit in alternate colours, each one clad in a pair of converse paired with brightly coloured jeans. I note that in this exhibit, the tables have turned, and the dresses, behind the security of their glass cases, are the audience for our own catwalk as we prance back and forth.
A Vivienne Westwood dress (centre) alongside two dresses from the late 1800s, illustration by Karolina Burdon.
The second time I go by myself on a rainy Sunday and I listen to every single commentary for each dress, writing notes as I go. The other gallery-folk are, like the dresses, a melting pot: families with young children; a few fashion students drawing the dresses in their sketchbooks. Amongst the chatter I can hear loud, excited French. Thirty or so people come and go while I examine the collection.
While I sit on the floor sucking the end of my pen and agonising over the spelling of ‘Vuitton’, there is a mother and her two children in the museum providing an alternative narrative to the info handsets. “Mummy, what is it?” says child no1. The mother pauses for a second as though thrown off balance by the question, “It’s dresses from the last 50 years,” she says, which is wrong, and I feel the same wince I had as a kid when I first realised that parents aren’t infallible. The exhibition is a celebration that the Fashion Museum is 50 years young, but the dresses themselves span across the ages as far back as the 1600s. Her mistake is understandable, as the date underneath the sign does read 1963- 2013 after all.
Red wool mini dress by André Courrèges, black Ossie Clark gown and 1930s evening dress, illustration by Gareth A Hopkins.
“Wow!” says child no2 as he reaches a dress from the 1800s. “Isn’t it amazing?” says the mother, her eyes alight. “Just like mummy used to wear,” she says pointing at a short, red little number. The children press their faces against the glass as though they are looking into the past.
The 50 Fabulous Frocks exhibition at the Fashion Museum, Bath is open from 2 February 2013 to the 31st December 2013. Entry is £2.
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