Walking Through Fashion’s Footprints
Nestled in the heart of London’s V&A is a stunning display of design, structure and history dedicated to the innovation and development of fashion from the eighteenth century to the present day. History of Fashion showcases how fashion has evolved through the ages and been influenced by society, economic, social and political times and inspired by historical moments and contemporary art movements.
Nowhere is this plainer to see than in the stunning collection of garments on display from the early 1920s. All things Egyptian were all the rage at the start of the decade, sparked by the historic excavation of King Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922. The beautiful ancient artefacts and wall art led to a demand for items that alluded to this ancient culture such as hieroglyph adorned accessories, printed fabrics and ostrich feather fans.
The first half of this decade was also the age of the Bright Young Things, jazz and cocktails, where women had more freedom, socially more liberal and took up pursuits such as visiting jazz halls and dance clubs that had previously been out of bounds. The craze for active dances such as the Charleston meant that traditional fashion standards were not suitable. Design houses such as Calcot Soeurs and Voisin were quick to produce clothes for this new movement, the silhouette had changed to a straight, boyish less restricting style and dresses were made out of lightweight fabrics to give its wearer more movement. Worn with strands of beads or pearls, it was the signature flapper look that defined an age.
The liberation of women continued through the 1920s into the 1930s with designers following the new leisure pursuits by launching swimming costumes and sports clothing. These items abandoned traditional fabrics in favour of new materials such as jersey which were perfect for the new love of outdoor activities. Also featured in this display are the exquisite designs by fashion icons such as the legendary Coco Chanel and the quirky and witty creations of Elsa Schiaparelli. Included is a Chanel sequinned trouser suit, previously unheard of for women, and an eccentric evening coat by Schiaparelli.
Elsa Schiaparelli is a prime example of the influence of art in fashion. She had multiple connections to artists of contemporary movements such as Cubism and Surrealism, and collaborated with artists such as Salvador Dalí and Christian Bérard. The innovative coat from 1937, was the work of a collaboration with the artist and poet Jean Cocteau, the two profiles that face each other allude to Cocteau’s fixation with the double image, which also was of particular interest for other Surrealist artists.
Another favourite display in the collection denotes the unmistakable silhouette and iconic look of the 1950s. The end of the war marked a return to glamour and the age of Haute Couture with Dior, Balenciaga and Givenchy at its forefront when Paris was the undisputed fashion capital of the world. The beautiful designs and creations that emerged from couture houses marked significant changes in style and design. Synched in waists, full skirts and intricate design details became the hallmarks of the decade. What set haute couture apart from mainstream fashion was the high quality and attention to detail. Regulated by the Chambre Syndicate de la Couture Parisienne , couture houses made items that were tailor made for individual clients by highly skilled expert dressmakers whilst ateliers such Rébé and Lesage provided the fine details such as embroidery or beading designs. Creations such as the Pierre Balmain evening dress made in Paris with ostrich feathers, sequins and rhinestones, is a beautiful example of the couture age.
Also on display are the impressive fashions for men and women from the eighteenth century. Looking at these wonderful creations is like stepping back in time to a different moment in history of full dresses, bodices and bonnets. The designs have a very English feel to them as designers created patterns based on flowers that grow in the English countryside. The society of the nineteenth century meant evening dresses made from bright coloured silks and woven shawls whilst fragile fans were the must have accessory for the age.
The installation concludes with the radical fashion of the present day. On display are designs by Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier and Christopher Kane.
Overall the installation is a stunning collection of items from important moments in the history of fashion. The time period spanning three centuries of creation showcases how the way we dress has changed and how a certain designs gain immortality by embodying the spirit of an age. Fashion represents significant social changes, particularly for women, and certain styles and creations have come to symbolise and define what that particular moment in history was about.