My 10 favourite things about ‘A History of Fashion in 100 Objects’

A visit to Bath

Last week I took a full week off from my PhD, went to see my parents in the south of England and caught up with some friends. It was a really nice chance to completely distract myself from writing and I am feeling nice and refreshed, ready to tackle my May deadlines and second year review. On Thursday I visited Bath for the day, and went to see the new exhibition at the Fashion Museum, ‘A History of Fashion in 100 Objects’. I like this format, made famous by the British Museum project ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects‘, also used by historian Gary Sheffield in his really interesting book ‘The First World War in 100 Objects.’ The premise of exploring a historical period (or other) through a number of objects quite simply allows for very focused attention on the items in question, drawing attention to their significance and narrative power. The curator or author can then draw interesting links, using the objects in context to understand the period or theme from a perhaps less well known or understood angle.

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.

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Doris Langley Moore, 1959.

2. Presentation

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.

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Glove collection, displayed on conservation storage boxes.

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.

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Text labels.

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.

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Ayrshire whitework collar, c.1830s.

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.

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Dress of the year 2015 by Craig Green, image © Bath Fashion Museum.

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.

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Beach pyjamas, c.1929.

HFx100 ID 68 1930s Fashion Museum Bath back view

Synthetic silk dress by Donguy, Paris, c.1930s, image © Bath Fashion Museum.

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!

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Behind the scenes at the Fashion Museum

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1910s dress on display behind the scenes.

I would thoroughly recommend a visit to this exhibition whether or not you have a particular interest in fashion and dress. It covers a huge swathe of our history and touches on culture, society, politics, industry, trade, literature, social customs, traditions, etc. I think the concept for the exhibition, though simple, is highly effective, and could easily be replicated with 100 entirely different objects telling 100 different stories. The curatorial team at Bath must have had some brilliant debates picking their 100; it is difficult not to be biased and say I’d have liked to see more WW1 era garments, but given the task I don’t know how I would choose either. If you can’t make it to Bath, check out this video that goes inside the exhibition.
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