The first time I went to England, it was a whirlwind trip. My stepmother had put together an ambitious itinerary in both length (double digit page number) and content. For a two week trip, the end goal was seemingly to become so well versed in British history and culture that we could become citizens. We studied monuments, deciphering their meaning and intended subject they memorialized. We climbed each of the winding staircase steps up to the top of Big Ben. We pondered each and every stone marker of the Royals who lay deceased in Westminster Abbey. We dragged our jet-lagged bodies through countless museums, our ears covered with the headphones from the heavily accented audio guides. It was an educational trip through a country with a vast and storied history.
Though we saw everything, I remembered little of it all. I strongly remember being laughed at by old English women as I fell in and out of sleepy consciousness on a double-decker bus. I remember oohing and awing over the precious, glittering stones of the Crown Jewels. I remember seeing the Rosetta Stone and giggling to myself over it being the only object in the British Museum that was under layers of bulletproof glass.
Upon returning to England, I craved to revisit some of the sites I wandered through with bleary eyes and heavy feet. Of those sites, one of the first on my list was certainly the Victoria and Albert museum. I had visited the V&A; with my family, naturally, but it had embarrassingly all blurred into my memory. This is likely because we had stuck with content of pure, classic historical value, rather than what I really wanted to see at the design-centric museum: the fashion history exhibit. Don’t get me wrong, classical textbook history fascinates me. It’s just that my passion is for fashion, which is not a subject that my dad and stepmother had on our itinerary. Luckily, this time I could set the agenda and I got to stroll happily through a lesson on fashion history.
The V&A; has everything a fashionista might want to learn about, from fabrics to designs to the biggest names in the industry. The featured exhibit was on London fashion in the 80s, aptly titled “Club to Catwalk.” It was loud and bright and vibrant, with a superb gift shop. The museum’s permanent collection is even better though, featuring looks from over 200 years of design history.
The main collection is set up like a timeline, beginning with 18th century styles. Chinoiserie period fabrics from China, India, and the Middle East hang on displays alongside carefully crafted garments, demonstrating how exotic fabrics and far away lands inspired design and changed the look of the public. The “Mantua” Gown is displayed in all its glory, making the most of the side hoop skirt design favored in the 18th century. It is bizarre looking, but held a purpose: a voluminous skirt eventuated a narrow waste, while the side hoop skirt made hips appear wide and good for child bearing. Fear not, gentlemen – extraordinary hats perched atop powdered wigs, formal brocade jackets, and silky stockings also line the walls.
Moving into the 19th century and Victorian attire, we see the emergence of even more figure conscious womenswear. Crinolines, the layers of fabric and caging beneath a dress to provide shape to a gown were evolving to become more flexible and lightweight. Corsets became a necessity and were created with great care. The museum has a particularly beautiful one on display, in vibrant red and yellow with glorious stitching, would have cinched in the waist of a young lady to an impossibly small size. Also on display are heavily bustled dresses, sumptuous velvet evening gowns, and accessories galore.
The 20th century designs are where we see fashion really evolve. The suffering involved in wearing a corset is rejected. Haute Couture, Zoot Suits, and flapper style all come to life. Vivienne Westwood, preeminent British designer and worldwide fashion icon, begins her domination of avant garde looks. France, Paris specifically, becomes the home of luxury fashion with high-quality fabrics, trimmings, and all things glamorous coming through the city. Perhaps most importantly, “Ready-to-Wear” or “prét-a-porter” clothing becomes available. If this is a term you haven’t heard before, its because unless all of your clothes are tailor made or couture, all retail clothing is ready-to-wear.
Fashion history is positively spectacular. It boggles the mind and awakens the eyes, taking in both how styles changed with history and how rapidly style has changed in the last 100 years. The details, quality, colors and embellishments tantalize viewers young and old. It appalls me that fashion isn’t taken more seriously, for it truly is an art form like no other, having to strike a balance between the whimsical world of design and the practicality of keeping one clothed. Karl Lagerfeld, the man behind Chanel, commented on this relationship, saying “We need houses as we need clothes, architecture stimulates fashion. It’s like hunger and thirst — you need them both.”
At the V&A; Museum, this fashion-phile couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. I wanted to take every item home to play infinite hours of dress up and examine each careful stitch and design. I not only love fashion for it’s playfulness and exuberance, but respect every bit of it.