A visit to Bath
As the Bath exhibition takes a numerical theme, here are 10 reasons that I loved the Fashion in 100 Objects exhibition, which – by the way – is on until January 2018, so no excuses not to visit!
1. Collection in Context
The first thing you see when entering the exhibition space is a quote from the museum’s founder, Doris Langley Moore. It was wonderful to see her words throughout the entire exhibition, and for the public to learn about her work both through her own words and information on the exhibition panels. This contextualizes the exhibition and the museum itself, and highlights the significance of the work carried out by earlier pioneers of dress history such as Langley Moore. The museum opened in 1963 when she donated around 5000 items to the city of Bath.
Most of the costume was fairly traditionally mounted on simple headless mannequins, nothing to distract from the items themselves, though some were suitably accessorized with jewellery, scarves, headwear or similar. To accommodate the 100+ objects the cases were very full, but the items were easily viewed and in some cases it was possible to see the side or back of an item, a real treat. What I most loved, however, was the museum’s use of conservation material and boxes to display some items. A collection of gloves, for example, was presented on a pile of grey conservation boxes with the gloves on simple shelves interspersed amongst the boxes. This had the duel benefit of looking incredibly visually appealing, but also reminding the viewer of the behind the scenes work carried out by the museum, and the care given to these precious objects.
3. Audio tour
I can never quite decide how I feel about audio tours, having worried in the past that they prevent natural discussion between museum or historic house visitors, and make everyone look a little zombie-like as they wonder around exhibition spaces. However, I have come round to them lately and the audio tour accompanying this exhibition was brilliant. There was a short narrative to go with each object, they were succinct and offered an extra layer of information not given on the labels. (Which were also brief but engaging and highly informative). The two levels of information worked well together, providing a winning combination of social and cultural history, information on materials and making processes with some more personal stories, and contextual information about donors or a connection to the local area. It was very busy the day I visited, and both adults and children were listening carefully to the audios and discussing them with their friends.
4. Not about designers
This exhibition was refreshingly not focused on designers, celebrities or big names. While designer pieces did feature, and most of the items would be classed as ‘elite’ fashion, the focus was more on the historical significance of the garment and a period of dress that it represented, rather than individual famous makers. It was lovely to see Dior, Jean Muir, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen pieces, but they were not presented as being any more important than the pieces by unknown makers that they were exhibited alongside.
5. Lack of cliches
This was clearly an incredibly well researched exhibition and the information given was well balanced. It was great to see a quote from Doris Langley Moore, for example, busting the myth about tiny waists in the Victorian era. Covering over four decades of dress history is tough and there were one or two comments that could have been expanded upon if the space was available. (I for example was slightly uncomfortable with the comment linking a wide-skirted 1916 suit with the flappers of the 1920s, given that no garments were displayed between 1916 and 1927 to justify this leap). But cliches were firmly avoided, and I think non-dress history specialists will learn a huge amount from a visit to the exhibition.
6. Making, materials and methods
Technical developments were well marked in this exhibition, and the significance of fabrics and making methods within fashion were explained very clearly through the inclusion of relevant objects. This was especially enjoyable in the 19th century area, where the jump from silk to cotton fashions was beautifully illustrated. It was lovely to see Ayrshire Whitework represented by an amazing (and huge!) collar from the 1830s, and elsewhere to see hand/machine embroidery, quilting, lacework, dyeing and other construction methods discussed.
7. Sub-collections, donor stories
A number of sub-collections were exhibited within the displays, such as glove collection mentioned earlier. Others included fans, shoes and jewellery. Displayed on mass, these sub-collections give the opportunity to tell the stories of donors, their interest in the objects, and how they came to be at the museum. All this information contributes to the strength of the exhibition as a whole, again taking a wider view and offering visitors an insight into the history of the museum.
8. Men, women and children
I really liked the fact that men and children’s fashions were displayed alongside the (predominately) women’s styles, adding a little extra context and showing how extravagant men’s fashion has been at certain points in history. This was nicely rounded out by the inclusion the ‘gender neutral’ dress of the year by Craig Green at the end of the exhibition. I only had one major criticism of the exhibition, which was the lack of explanation about the class status associated with the garments. It could be argued that the use of the word ‘fashion’ in the exhibition title excludes a need for this, but I think a mention of the fact that the clothing on show would mostly have been worn by higher classes, and aspired to by others, would have been helpful for some visitors.
9. Beach pyjamas
Very simply, I am in love with the 1929 beach pyjamas that were object number 67. They are beautiful, stylish, exotic and elegant and represent an era of fashion which I have come to love. They also help to tell the story of women and trousers in a non-cliched manner. I would very much like a pair for myself! The 1930s evening gown at number 68 was also fabulous, and I was pleased to see early synthetic silks represented in the exhibition.
10. Behind the scenes
Not strictly a part of this exhibition, but I am such a huge fan of the ‘behind the scenes’ display at Bath Fashion Museum that I wanted to include it also. Fashions currently on display in this area cover the period from Jane Austen to the First World War (I was always going to enjoy this!) and items are simply displayed against the backdrop of the museum’s stored collections. Again, it is so great to see boxes and conservation materials, so usually hidden away it is exciting to see them out on show for the public! I was especially pleased to see the display of 1910s era gowns, contextualized within the changes wrought by the war. A couple of garments included were ones I had the chance to study during a visit to the research rooms in 2014, so it was especially nice to see them mounted and on display!