The Fashion and Textiles Museum, Inside and Out

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Hannah Rumball, PhD candidate, documents an extraordinary day in Bermondsey, London.

Founded in 2003 by British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, and still functioning as her London residence and studios, the Fashion and Textiles Museum presents a constantly changing series of design and jewellery exhibitions operated in association with Newham College. On 4 June 2013 the MA History of Design student group, joined by Professor Lou Taylor and Dr Annebella Pollen, were given unprecedented access to the museum’s current exhibition, Zandra’s cutting and print room, and even to her home. As Curator, our fellow Masters student Dennis Nothdruft was in a perfect position to provide an intimate behind-the-scenes tour of the site.

The day commenced with a visit to the hit show Kaffe Fassett: A Life in Colour. The gallery space had been skilfully curated as a unified flowing composition that also managed to represent the core themes of each of the craft practitioner’s creative phases through painting, knitting, textile design and quilting. The relatively modest size of the exhibition space and the overlapping arrangement of the exhibited pieces created an intimate and homely environment for the textiles, much as you may imagine Kaffe envisioned them in use. A heavy wool knitted handmade cardigan, for example, draped over the back of a chair, sat as if its owner had just abandoned it. A Wedgwood-inspired cabbage teapot stood as if ready for pouring amidst the vegetable and flower motifs of Kaffe’s Berlin wool work pillows and needlework furniture coverings. This compilation of recent and earlier pieces, featuring an example of the Victorian ceramics that inspired his earliest works and which he reinterpreted through his bold colour palette, was organised as a psychedelic garden tea party on the mezzanine floor in the space’s most striking curatorial composition. The exhibition perfectly reflected the life’s work of its subject yet also combined it effectively with the bold and distinctive aesthetic favoured by the gallery’s founder.

Widely recognised as one of the world’s most distinctive designers, Zandra Rhodes’ career has spanned more than forty years.  Rhodes originally studied printed textile design at the RCA, and this practice is still central to all of her creations. Her distinctive hand-printed fabrics formed the basis for her first fashion collections, with which she crossed the Atlantic to be featured in American Vogue in 1969. Her international profile among the new wave of British designers during the 1970s helped bring the London scene to the forefront of the fashion world. Renowned for her safety pin-adorned, torn and beaded punk-inspired creations, she later went on to dress Diana, HRH Princess of Wales and Freddie Mercury, amongst others. Her designs continue to adorn well-known figures, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Mirren, for both awards ceremonies and on-screen roles. In addition to her clothing brand, Zandra’s current output includes costume and set design commissions for opera performances around the world. Her tireless work in the field of fashion was honoured with a CBE in 2007. She has also received a spectacular nine Honorary Doctorates internationally and is Chancellor of the University of the Creative Arts. Zandra’s bright pink hair, theatrical make-up and daring jewellery have also made the designer into an icon as recognisable as any of her gowns.

Such exhaustive creativity can be witnessed first-hand when entering the rabbit warren of studios, offices and private rooms that make up the behind-the-scenes of the Fashion and Textiles Museum. Steep, narrow stair cases, lushly carpeted in bold patterns and crammed with artworks, connect the myriad of functional quarters that operate as separate sites for each of the specific stages in her creative process. Wandering through, every wall positively groans under the weight of stored and displayed material; every nook and cranny houses a design, swathe of fabric, finished garment or magazine from any of the past 40 years of her career. Zandra is a meticulous collector and archivist of her own practice and nowhere is this more evident than in the textile design studio in the lowest sector of the complex. As a functional site, the uncharacteristic concrete floors and grey walls signal the dirty-hands nature of the artistic work undertaken in the area. An enormous print table, easily 10 feet long, is bordered by neatly arranged wooden markers and screens organised likes books in a library. While digital techniques have been latterly introduced into Zandra’s textile design practice, this screen printing area is still a hub of activity. The print room also houses all of her original screens dating back to the 1960s, featuring her most iconic patterns. As we huddled around the expansive work bench, like children at an oversized dinner table, Dennis Nothdruft explained the function and significance of the space as creative site of inception, realisation and archive.

For many, however, the highlight of the visit was lunch in Zandra’s private flat, with the designer herself joining us for an M&S sandwich and a chat. Zandra’s vocal opinions remain razor sharp, and she keeps her finger firmly on the pulse of the international fashion and gallery scene. Perched on a leather lounger, surrounded by architectural plants, flamboyant artworks by the likes of Andrew Logan and a collection of her extraordinary dresses on rails in a corner, Zandra had the perfect backdrop as her private rooms reflect the kaleidoscopic aesthetic of her professional and personal style. With rainbow shades of blue, green, yellow and hot pink adorning every wall of the rooftop space, Zandra’s vision comes fully alive in the space she calls home. Venturing out onto the rooftop terrace, only the stunning views of a baking hot London skyline reminded us of the outside world.

Behind the Scenes at the Musee Galleria, Paris

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Second year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History students Amy Hodgson, Nicola Goodwin and Nicola Hayward describe their ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ insight into the historic dress collections of Paris.

As part of our second year option, A Trip to Paris, we were given the chance to go on a five-day study visit to the culturally and historically rich French capital over Easter 2013. As student dress historians it was unfortunate that many of the permanent fashion museums and exhibitions were closed during our time there. However, the Musee Galliera had exhibits in various locations and venues around Paris. One of these was the Paris Haute Couture show at the Hotel de Ville, an enlightening and informative experience which showed not only examples of couture garments but also gave an insight into their elaborate and innovative design techniques. This show included many designers who are not household names, and provided a broad selection showcasing fashion throughout the eras to enthusiastic crowds of visitors. After witnessing this exhibition by the Galliera we were curious to understand the work that takes place to create such a vision.

Luckily we were given the rare opportunity to visit the Musee Galliera costume stores. Despite the renovations that were taking place, our tutor Dr. Charlotte Nicklas was able to arrange the trip through a colleague and curator who was working there. Under heavy security we began our tour of one of the largest dress collections and restoration facilities in Europe, featuring thousands of garments, photographs and historically significant records. Needless to say we were overcome with excitement at the prospect of being allowed to witness this fine collection.

Figure 1.  View of the Restoration Room and early 20th Century Dancing Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 1. View of the Restoration Room and early 20th Century Dancing Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Firstly, entering the conservation room, we were faced with an early twentieth century dancing dress being restored by expertly trained seamstresses and members of the highly regarded team of conservators. Every item is meticulously studied, conserved and catalogued before it is considered for the collection. The store rooms even feature a room dedicated to garment cleaning; steamers, hoovers and washing implements are used to make sure all garments are immaculate and at no risk of insect infestation.

Figure 2. View of Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear Invitation. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the author. 22nd April 2013.

Figure 2. View of Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear Invitation. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the author. 22nd April 2013.

As well as garments, the museum also acquires significant documents, photographs, and accessories. All of these elements are essential to creating an understanding of the fashion industry throughout history. One of the examples we were able to see was a Martin Margiela 2006 Menswear show invitation, which offered a glimpse into the post-modern, conceptual fashion world, where the invitation is the first insight into the illusion and theme of the fashion show. The numerous records and photographs that are gathered by the Musee Galliera are easily overlooked, but are equally as important in understanding the culture, images and innovative work that surrounds, and are sometimes created by, many of these designers.

The next stage of the tour was the storerooms, where we were asked to wear shoe protectors to prevent outside germs entering the controlled space. The room is kept at a consistent temperature and monitored constantly. We were faced with rails upon rails, as far as the eye could see, all holding historically significant garments from a range of eras, and each holding their own stories. We were guided through a maze of storage containers. It was unlike anything any of us had ever seen or could have imagined, and was quite overwhelming in its scale.

Figure 3. View of a Worth 19th Century Opera Coat. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photography by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 3. View of a Worth 19th Century Opera Coat. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photography by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

We were shown three garments that had been chosen to represent their particular era, from the 19th century and early 20th century to the 1950s. All were excellent examples, embodying the style and design of the their time. A late 19th century Worth opera coat, for example, acted as a potent symbol of bourgeois decadence and the luxurious lifestyle that this social standing entailed. The second example we were shown was a 1920s dancing dress, adorned with rhinestones and velvet fringing, by an unknown designer.  Again, this piece evocatively embodied the changing notions of femininity for which the 1920s are well known. It also exemplified the innovative design and skilled workmanship that is involved in creating such a heavily embellished garment. The third and final garment we were shown was a dress that was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s first collection for Dior in 1957/58. The dress echoes Dior’s New Look style, with hidden corseting and a full skirt, creating the recognisable 1950s fashionable silhouette.  The monochrome floral print gave the dress a photomontage effect and the motif appeared quite modern because of these elements. This small selection provided a glimpse into the varied and impressive collection at Musee Galliera. The final room that we visited showcased the museum’s selection of mannequins and the workmanship that is put into displaying garments. Differing body shapes and changing attitudes towards the body must be taken into account, giving a historically authentic form for when the garments are exhibited.

Figure 4. View of 1920s heavily embellished dancing dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 4. View of 1920s heavily embellished dancing dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal Photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 5. View of Yves Saint Laurent for Dior 1957-1958 Couture Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms. Personal Photograph by the author. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 5. View of Yves Saint Laurent for Dior 1957-1958 Couture Dress. Musee Galliera Store Rooms. Personal Photograph by the author. April 22nd 2013.

We were delighted to be offered the opportunity to have a once-in-a-lifetime insight into the inner workings of one of the most important and vast dress collections in Europe. Even though the garments that we saw were spectacular, to be given the chance to observe the conservation, organisation, display and management of the collection was truly insightful. All of these elements demonstrated the vast amount of work undertaken by the highly regarded team of specialists who understand the importance of building and maintaining this internationally important collection.

Figure 6. View of our Protective Footwear that must be worn whilst inside the Store Room. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.

Figure 6. View of our Protective Footwear that must be worn whilst inside the Store Room. Musee Galliera Store Rooms, 2013. Personal photograph by the authors. April 22nd 2013.