Detail from Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall Winter 1970. Marina Schiano wearing the short evening dress © The Estate of Jeanloup Sieff

The Allure Of Style

22nd May 2015

Fashion exhibitions have always captivated large audiences, but Deborah Mulhearn explores why they are attracting an increasing number of visitors...

We are used to rock concerts and music festivals selling out, but fashion exhibitions? Sounds unlikely, yet time slots for the first five weekends of the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty sold out before it even opened back in March, causing the museum to extend the closing date to the beginning of August.

It seems we can’t get enough of fashion, and this summer fashion lovers will be treated to an array of front row extravaganzas, not in the invitation-only world of catwalks and couture houses, but in our public museums and galleries.

As well as Savage Beauty, there are exhibitions focusing on iconic contemporary designers Vivienne Westwood and Yves Saint Laurent. Their designs and those of many other couturiers can also be found within several irresistible exhibitions on everything from royal costumes, wedding dresses, wartime fashions, evening dresses, shoes and swimwear.

“Sometimes, such exhibitions become ‘must see’ cultural events,” says Sonnet Stanfill, fashion curator at the V&A. “And this could be for a variety of reasons: the dynamic or dramatic garments on display; the beautiful or unusual staging; the celebrity connection or subject matter.”

The Alexander McQueen retrospective is set to overtake 2013’s record-breaking David Bowie Is show. While this wasn’t strictly speaking a fashion exhibition, the singer’s inventive costumes were an integral part and certainly a major draw.

“Fashion exhibitions tend to be popular because they strike a chord with visitors through the information they convey about something we all share, that is, how we present ourselves through the way that we dress,” says Stanfill.

Historic costume displays have always been popular, but fashion exhibitions are becoming immersive, theatrical experiences where the clothes are not just pinned on mannequins that you move reverentially past. They have the look, feel and thrill of a hotly anticipated theatrical event or a rock concert. As well as the sumptuous clothes, visitors are enthralled by the technology that enhances them with catwalk shows, projectors, mirrors, music and holograms.

The aim is for visitors to feel totally immersed in the experience, explains Stanfill. “We are always looking for intriguing ways to convey information. The V&A is a leader in staging dynamic and provocative exhibitions, in part thanks to an innovative use of film and other audio visual strategies.”

Savage Beauty is a case in point. Each section is intended to capture the essence of the flamboyant designer, who died in 2010, through dramatic catwalk presentations, using installation, music and film. The more extravagant the better; last year’s Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican, for example, was more like a spectacular stage show, with moving catwalks and animated faces projected onto the mannequins.

“The public does not necessarily distinguish between costume for the stage and for performance and fashion, but sees garments worn on the body as a general category,” explains Stanfill.

The excitement is not confined to London and the South. The Bowes Museum in County Durham hosts the first ever UK showing of Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal, from 11 July. The setting - as well as the clothes – certainly has the ‘wow’ factor. A French chateau in the middle of the Durham countryside, this splendid historic house was built as a public art gallery to house the collection of John Bowes, a 19th century art collector related to the Queen Mother, and his French wife Joséphine.

Keeper of fashion and textiles Joanna Hashagen worked with the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent in Paris to bring the show to the museum. “The Fondation wanted a UK show, they were happy to work outside of London, and the French connection with our building was too much to resist.”

“Yves Saint Laurent has tremendous world-wide cachet,” she says, “and we’ve been spurred on to start a 21st collection of French couture.” Style is Eternal (Yves Saint Laurent famously said that fashion fades, but style is eternal) will include all the iconic pieces such as the ‘Le Smoking’ women’s tuxedo and the ‘Mondrian’ dress.

Some of the items will be on open display rather than behind glass cases, so that people can see the costumes close up. “This is one aspect of contemporary fashion exhibitions that is very popular,” says Hashagen. “You are much more restricted with historic items, which are often fragile and need special environmental conditions. Contemporary items need less of this protection, and that brings a thrilling immediacy.”

There’s something about putting contemporary work in a historic setting. Visitors can see explicit influences, such as at the Vivienne Westwood: Cut from the Past exhibition at Danson House in Bexleyheath, Kent. “When people see, for example, a pair of 18th century fur-lined bootees that could have been designed by Vivienne Westwood herself, the interplay is tremendously exciting,” says Hashagen.

The lines between fashion show and art exhibition are also becoming more and more blurred, says Hashagen. “People are realising that fashion exhibitions no longer have to be created around staid and stationary mannequins. Our previous exhibition Birds of Paradise – Plumes & Feathers in Fashion, for example, which came from the Mode Museum in Antwerp, showed the truly amazing ingenuity and sculptural qualities of these pieces, and its success has given us a great platform for Yves Saint Laurent.”

At just two hours twenty minutes from London, the Bowes Museum is well placed for the tourist destinations of Teesdale, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. “Style is Eternal is set to become one of this summer’s must-see exhibitions,” says Hashagen. “We know we won’t disappoint.”

Not everyone wants to be spellbound by all-singing, all-dancing spectaculars; sometimes you just want to be able to peer at the fabric, revel in its beauty and admire the craftsmanship and skills, particularly if resources have been scarce.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) London marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War with the Fashion on the Ration exhibition. “Exploring what forces cause fashion to change is fascinating – be that a world war or changes in manufacturing processes, through to pure style shifts,” says Laura Clouting, historian at IWM London. “Clothing and fashion remains a subject with a huge pull in terms of appeal, whether looking at it through a contemporary or a historical lens.”

“We see how, by 1945, British people had grown tired of clothes rationing and ‘Make Do and Mend’,” she adds. “Advertisements promised new styles but often shops remained bare. The best dressed were those leaving the military services. Demobilised men were issued with a full set of clothes – the ‘demob suit’.”

“Fashion on the Ration was a brilliant chance to bring our uniform and civilian clothing collection to prominence, and it’s likely to surprise people about the breadth and range of IWM’s clothing collection and the stories it reveals at an intensely personal level,” adds Clouting. “But what’s remarkable and very clear is how restrictions spurred innovation and creativity too.”

Careful attention has been given to the presentation of the costumes. “It is so much more than just a display of clothing arranged typographically,” she explains. “Visually, and as a space to walk around, the exhibition is attention grabbing. It is a bright and energetic space, and we’ve sought to make parallels between our attitudes towards clothing now and how people felt then. There are surprising similarities – and striking differences.”

“There is clearly an appetite for contemporary fashion exhibitions,” adds Clouting, “but I don’t think that this is at the expense of historical retrospectives.”

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