One Sunday during my recent trip to London I went to my favorite museum ever: the Victoria & Albert Museum. It calls itself “the world’s greatest museum of art and design.” I call it a gigantic, creative playground. Striding through the tunnel from the South Kensington Underground station I always feel a surge of curiosity and happiness as I approach the V&A through the back entrance.
In February and March 2011, when I was researching “Sewing Destination: London, England” for Threads magazine, Room 40, the Fashion Gallery, was closed for a major remodeling. It reopened in spring 2012, and I got to see it that June. The reopened gallery is a wonderful showcase for temporary exhibitions and for choice pieces from the permanent fashion collection.
For a couple of hours on that recent Sunday afternoon I wandered from one glass case to the next, admiring the beauty and ingenuity of many garments. Sometimes the designers and makers’ names are known sometimes, they have been lost, but their work lives on to inspire us.
I switched off my camera flash and was able to take pictures, but the low lighting and reflective glass were problems. However, many of these garments can be seen in the V&A’s database. If you click on the links below, you can see the V&A’s professional photos with descriptions of the garments and historical contexts.
The first piece I admired was a black and white tweed suit by Balenciaga dated 1954-1955. I could happily wear this today. I love the big collar, the bracelet-length sleeves, and the texture of the tweed. I loved seeing the black gloves, the pumps and the handbag exhibited with the suit to make an outfit. I was reminded of my own chunky tweed vintage jacket from the ’50s, which is just begging for long gloves to complete the look.
In the same case was this amazing miniature dress by Jacques Fath from about 1950, donated by the designer David Sassoon. The description in the V&A’s database says this was a sample to show what the finished dress would look like. Don’t you wonder if any full-size dresses like this have survived?
Completing the trio is Batignolles, a three-piece afternoon dress by Christian Dior from 1952. The V&A description says
Despite its simple appearance, it is assembled with a multiplicity of buttons and tiny snap fasteners, which required the help of a lady’s maid to secure.
The couturier Christóbal Balenciaga was said to have disapproved of the complexity of Dior’s fastenings.
Don’t you wish, as I do, that you could see for yourself how complicated it was to put on this ensemble? I wonder whom I’d side with. Probably Balenciaga. But the dress is gorgeous nonetheless.
As is this coral red beauty, also by Dior, from 1954-’55.
In a neighboring case, within sight of this sumptuous dress that used extravagant amounts of yardage, are a woman’s utility suit from 1942 and a man’s utility suit from 1941, when fabric use was restricted.
I am so struck by how attractive these suits are while working within the limitations. They make me want to learn more about what the design problems were and how many ways designers solved those problems.
I like the contrasting buttons on the woman’s suit. They make me want to comb through my recent button purchases looking to brighten up some staid tweed.
After the years of fabric restriction isn’t it easy to imagine how exhilarating it had to be to use yards and yards of fabric as you pleased?
In another case near the Zemire dress is this Foale and Tuffin suit from 1964, and it provides another kind of contrast.
If the Zemire dress expresses the freedom to use lots of fabric, it also constricts the wearer with a corset and girdle. And the Batignolles dress required a helper! This brash, young, graphic black and white suit feels really free to me–you put it on and you’re done. No cinched waist here.
In trying to describe the feeling of this suit a word came to me that I hadn’t thought of in decades: “kicky.” This is a kicky suit. The Balenciaga suit is not kicky. The utility suits are definitely not kicky. Neither are the red Zemire dress or the deep blue Batignolle dress. But the Foale and Tuffin has a youthful, devil-may-care feel about it. In the Vogue magazine photo the model is striding along outdoors, enjoying the breeze, independent and unstyled.
I admire all the garments here, but the one I can really imagine buying, wearing, and enjoying is this Foale and Tuffin suit. How about you?