50 Years of Fantasy: A Zandra Rhodes Retrospective

Sarah Carnall, BA Fashion and Dress History, appraises the display successes and shortcomings of a recent Zandra Rhodes exhibition.

The Fashion and Textiles Museum (FTM) in London regularly refreshes their space by changing exhibitions every few months to continuously display a variety of textiles and fashion. From September 2019 to January 2020, they celebrated their founder with an exhibition entitled Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous, featuring a vast selection of Rhodes’ garments. These ranged from her first collection, The Knitted Circle, in 1969, through to her newest Jubilee Collection of Spring 2020. Alongside pieces from these collections, the exhibition also included Rhodes-designed costumes from operas and examples of her printed textiles.

Figure 1: Garments from the Main Gallery. Author’s Own Image.

This exhibition, curated and designed by Dennis Nothdruft and Beth Ojari, is split into two sections. On entry into the main gallery, Rhodes’ vibrant and intricate garments spring out to greet visitors from their tiered circular plinths, assembled together to show Rhodes’ work over the decades (Fig.1). This display style is common to this museum; previous exhibitions like Night and Day: Fashion and Photographs used a similar technique of grouping garments together to create a scene. While this display strategy is effective in showing the evolution of Rhodes’ work, it hinders visitors from being able to fully appreciate everything as some garments can be out of sight, and it makes it difficult to take good quality photographs to cherish after the event, which can be such a key part of contemporary museum visitor experience.

Figure 2: Dress worn by Princess Diana. Author’s Own Image.

One of the displayed garments is a sleeveless chiffon dress, famously worn by Princess Diana for a state banquet in Kyoto (Fig.2). However, without the assistance of the pamphlet provided, it would not be obvious that this is a piece of note; the displays do not have labels giving specific details about each piece, and are instead only accompanied by a date, with full details listed inside the pamphlet.

Writing on the subject of exhibition display, Gillian Rose (2001) has discussed the importance of text labels and their effect in the museum space, arguing, ‘They make some aspects of the objects on display more important than others’. Whilst the pamphlet is helpful and provides detailed information and includes object numbers, these are not clearly displayed in the exhibition so it is not easy for visitors with less knowledge of the museum’s layout to understand. Pamphlets have also been used in previous FTM exhibitions; in their 2019 exhibition Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution, featuring the designs of Terence Conran and Mary Quant, they had an exhibition booklet that gave detailed information about the works displayed. However, in that instance, they also included text labels throughout to identify each piece. I feel this should be a consistent feature in FTM exhibitions as it gives some basic information that visitors can follow, especially if they may not have detailed fashion knowledge.

Figure 3: Textiles. Author’s Own Image.

In the first part of the mezzanine area, a selection of Rhodes’ textiles are suspended from the ceiling, with various hand-designed and screen-printed patterns and materials (Fig.3). This was an interesting aspect of the exhibition, making a nice change from seeing just fashion pieces. The design of this section allowed for each textile to have its own display and conveyed the diverse creations that characterise Rhodes’ career.

Textiles were followed by works donated from some of the exhibition’s sponsors, that is, Dallas, San Diego and Seattle Opera Houses. These were costumes designed for performances of The Magic Flute, Pearl Fishers and Aida,  amongst others (Fig.4). The inclusion of these costumes shows how Rhodes has used her talent for theatrical use, an area in the arts that matches her creative textiles and fantasy fashions. Opera costumes were displayed next to some of the most famous stage garments by Rhodes, including an ensemble created for Barbara Streisand for a performance in 2019, as well as a replica blouse for Freddie Mercury that was used for the 2018 film, Bohemian Rhapsody (Fig.5). These were noteworthy garments, however the weak lighting in the mezzanine made them blend into the rest of the display, with visitors only knowing their importance if they read the text labels.

Figure 4: Costume from Aida. Author’s Own Image.

Overall, I feel this exhibition truly celebrates the impressive career of Zandra Rhodes, including stage costumes, fashion collections and fabrics from the past fifty years. It was interesting to see the variety of her designs and how she has taken inspiration from many cultures in an appropriate way. Whilst there were display issues, such as the lack of continuity in using text labels throughout the exhibition, the Rhodes’ retrospective was supported by a comprehensive pamphlet with full details about each item. Rhodes has stuck to her word from 1980, when she claimed, ‘I supply fantasy for people.’

Figure 5: Blouse from Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Author’s Own Image.